Defending the “Religion of Peace”: Six Flawed Strategies

How do Muslim apologists defend the idea that Islam is a religion of peace? In a number of ways, but it boils down to six. Three of them are scriptural strategies, debates over what the Islamic holy texts say and require. The other three are non-scriptural strategies which foist the blame for Muslim violence on something other than religiosity. Let’s consider them all.

Scriptural Strategies

There are generally three apologetic strategies used to prove that the Islamic holy texts — the Qur’an, the Sira, and the Hadith — don’t promote or require violence.

(1) The Reinterpretation Defense. This strategy relies on interpreting the holy war texts in a way that opposes their evident meaning. We often hear that jihad is a spiritual struggle, not a physical or military one. It’s actually both and has always been so. If jihad were only a spiritual struggle, then the sections in the Qur’an about booty and spoils of war make no sense. You don’t get spoils out of a spiritual struggle.

The requirement to wage literal warfare has been mandatory since the days of Muhammad, and remains so in all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Shafii legal manual ‘Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler) is one of the highest authorities on the subject, and certified by the Al-Azhar University as reflecting the “practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community”. The manual devotes a single paragraph to jihad as spiritual struggle, and then spends seven whole pages on jihad as warfare. It makes clear, as the Qur’an does, that jihad is physical warfare against non-Muslims:

“Jihad means to war against non-Muslims, and is etymologically derived from the word ‘mujahada’, signifying warfare to establish the religion. And it is the lesser jihad. As for the greater jihad, it is spiritual warfare against the lower self (nafs), which is why the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said as he was returning from jihad, ‘We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ The scriptural basis for jihad, is such Qur’anic verses as: (1) ‘Fighting is prescribed for you’ (2:216); (2) ‘Slay them wherever you find them’ (4:89); (3) ‘Fight the idolators utterly’ (9:36); and such hadiths as: ‘I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me’, and ‘To go forth in the morning or evening to fight in the path of Allah is better than the whole world and everything in it.’ “

The idea that jihad is purely a spiritual struggle is a fantasy.

There is nothing wrong with reinterpretation when you acknowledge that is what you are doing. It’s what reformers do when they reevaluate texts so that religion can survive and evolve. The Catholic Church did this at Vatican II, when it reinterpreted the gospel passion narratives to dispense with antisemitism. Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz wants to spiritualize the jihad and dispense with violence. He says, “We Muslims must admit there are passages in the Qur’an that require reinterpretation. Let us use existing tools of exegeses, such as specificity, restriction, abrogation, and metaphor to condemn [the violence required by the Qur’an].” As a reformist plan, that’s great. Reinterpreting jihad as a purely spiritual struggle is a commendable goal. The problem is that unlike Nawaz, most re-interpreters don’t admit the problem, because they don’t believe there even is a problem with the Qur’an. In their minds, they are not really reinterpreting, rather supplying what the holy sources actually mean, and insisting that people who read violence and other bad things from the Qur’an are mistaken. That’s not only wrong, it gives the fatal impression that reform isn’t necessary.

(2) The Context Defense. The idea is that verses may seem to endorse violence, but if you read them in context with the surrounding verses (the literary context), and/or understand them in their original setting (the historical context), they promote fighting only in self-defense. For example, when it says to “slay people wherever you find them” (Qur’an 2:191), it’s relevant that in the previous verse, the command has to do with “fighting those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190). And that’s certainly true. But there are many more verses that also command the slaying of unbelievers wherever you find them, and there is nothing from either the literary or historical context that qualifies the command at all. Examples would be “fight those who do not believe in Allah or the last day” (Qur’an 9:29), which is not about fighting in self-defense. It’s about offensive jihad, based on holy imperative.

Context is always crucial, and historians pride themselves on getting it right. Otherwise you can make a passage say anything you want. The problem is that in this case, apologists are just assuming that the context will prove what they want it to prove. They have this strange idea that context is somehow automatically liberating and results in more palatable readings of texts. Sometimes that happens, and it’s nice when it does, but it just as often doesn’t. The purpose of historical criticism isn’t to produce better theology (even when it can genuinely lend support in that regard). Its purpose is as cold as scientific inquiry: to let the chips fall where they may, for better or worse. Violence in the Islamic sources is just as obvious when taken in literary and historical context. It’s a mandatory requirement on Muslim believers; to subject infidels and bring them under the rule of Islamic law. The difference between the context of Muhammad in the 7th century and that of ISIS in the 21st doesn’t amount to anything that changes this.

(3) The Counter-Scriptural Defense. This is the game of scriptural one-upsmanship. To prove that Islam is a religion of peace, apologists will cite, “To you be your religion, and to me be mine” (Qur’an 109:6), and “There’s no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), both of which sound progressive. The problem is that these texts aren’t the Qur’an’s final marching orders. The pattern found in the Qur’an, Sira (the life of Muhammad), and the Hadith is the same: only when Muhammad was outnumbered and building his power base in his early years in Mecca, did he counsel such a message of peace and tolerance. This was to ensure the survival of the Muslim community. (Ironically, it is these peaceful passages which fall prey to the context trap, not the violent ones as the apologists think.) In his later years in Medina, when the Muslim community had grown, the message changed to “fight those who fight you” (Qur’an 2:190-191; the defensive jihad). Finally, in the latest period of Medina, when Muslims had the strongest and dominant position in society, the message changed again, from “fight those who fight you” to “fight those who do not believe in Allah” (Qur’an 9:29; the offensive jihad) for the subjugation of non-Muslims. These are the abundant passages which carry eternal force: Muslims are to kill infidels and heretics until they die in martyrdom (Qur’an 9:111), and should “not weaken and call for peace when they should be uppermost” (Qur’an 47:35).

There’s a term for this trajectory. It’s called the Doctrine of Abrogation, which says that later passages supersede earlier ones. It’s still the official doctrine in all schools of Islam, and derives from the Qur’an itself: “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except when we bring forth one better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (Qur’an is 2:106). Allah changes revelations as he goes along, and the later (“better”) revelations trump the earlier ones. The early peaceful texts have relevance only when Muslims are vulnerable or in a minority position; the later violent texts have eternal force. Islam is unique on this point. In other religions you can play the counter-scriptural game with flexibility. When rabbis debated whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, there is no controlling text in the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s why most scriptures are conveniently malleable. Not so the Qur’an. When liberal Muslims cite “there is no compulsion in religion” and that if you disagree with someone, “to you be your religion and to me be mine”, we should of course applaud them, but the fact is that their claims are toothless, because the doctrine of abrogation refutes their citations in advance. Until actual reformers succeed in reversing the direction of abrogation, and manage to give primacy to the (very few) Meccan texts at the expense of all the Medinan ones — not to mention all the passages in the Sira and Hadith — the counter-scriptural game is doomed to fail.

In sum: scriptural strategies

All three scriptural strategies are legitimate, but Muslim apologists don’t use them properly when trying to prove that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. In the case of reinterpretation, they essentially don’t admit what they are doing (unlike reformers) and just pretend that the scriptural texts are fine and peaceful as they stand. In the case of context, it’s no help at all on this matter. And in the case of setting the few genuinely peaceful scriptures against the many violent ones, the Doctrine of Abrogation — indeed the Qur’an itself — renders the peaceful ones obsolete.

Non-Scriptural Strategies

Now we should ask how Islamic violence is accounted for by these apologists who don’t examine their scriptures carefully. Where do they put the blame in order to salvage Islam as a religion of peace? There are generally three strategies of blame-shifting.

(4) The Poverty Defense. The claim is that poverty and/or lack of education causes violence and terrorism. Social scientists have collected massive data on the socioeconomic background of terrorists, and unfortunately no evidence supports the idea that Islamic jihadists are unusually poor or badly schooled. The Princeton University survey in 2008 was a landmark in this regard. Another study done by the RAND Corporation focused on suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas on the West Bank and Gaza, and found that nearly 60% of suicide-bombers had more than a high-school education, compared with less than 15% of the Palestinian population on whole. Another study in Lebanon focused on Hizbullah militants, who were better educated and less likely to be from poor families than the overall population of the Shia areas of Lebanon. Nor is there evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among the destitute and deprived. In Pew surveys done in 2004, adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey were asked whether they believed that suicide-bombing was justified. Shockingly, the ones who voiced more agreement were those who were more educated.

Some then insist that poverty is at least the root cause of terror, even if terrorists themselves are not poor, the argument being that anger over poverty causes richer citizens of poor countries to join terrorist groups. This idea was tested by looking at data on 956 terrorist events between 1997 and 2003. Against expectations again, the data showed that the poorest countries — those with low literacy, and/or those whose economies were relatively stagnant — did not produce more terrorists. Moreover, when the analysis was restricted to suicide-attacks, citizens of the poorest countries were the least likely to commit a suicide-attack.

It is demonstrably false, in other words, that poverty causes violence or terrorism in the Islamic world. The idea seems intuitively absurd anyway. Many other places — Swaziland, Costa Rica, the Philippines, you name it — are plagued by poverty and/or lack of education, and they aren’t combustible like Islamic cultures.

(5) The Political Grievance Defense. The claim is that jihadists and Islamists are motivated more by political grievances than religious ideology. There are two responses to this. First is that on one level this is a meaningless claim, because Islam is inherently political. Warfare (jihad), terms of law and order (sharia), and territorial claims (to subjugate the world and bring all nations under Islamic rule) are in essence what makes something political. By definition, groups like Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS will cry out against foreign policies. But their grievances, whether sincere or not, have nothing to do with things like enslaving underage Yazidi girls, killing Turkmen Shias, throwing gays off rooftops, and executing Muslim apostates. It’s not even necessarily the case that Islamic governments want their grievances solved. Muslims who have lived in Islamic countries know this firsthand — that Islamic supremacists use leftist narratives about oppression to their advantage, to deflect criticism and to further justify oppressing their own people. They thrive on grievances, which embolden them, open more avenues to paradise, and provide their reason-to-be. But they certainly don’t need to have grievances to wage war, and often they don’t.

The classic case is that of Thomas Jefferson, who responded to an unprovoked Muslim attack by launching war against the Barbary States in 1801. The unprovoked attack came sixteen years prior (1785), at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean were assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms. Jefferson (at that time a delegate to Europe, before his presidency) was shocked at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that they were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. All of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda sermons, and yet this was over two centuries ago, long before America even had a foreign policy. The Barbary Muslims had no political grievances against the U.S. They were just doing — in their own words — as Muhammad commanded in the Qur’an.

It’s true, however — and this is the second response — that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror. In that sense, a lot of the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. The last two American presidents were horrible in this regard. George W. Bush and Barack Obama labored under the illusion that the United States could bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this when he removed Saddam Hussein; Obama thought so when he aided in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result wasn’t democracy; it was chaos and anarchy in Libya; unrest and instability in Egypt; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. The dictators we have toppled were bad, but the jihad and Islamist groups who fill the void are worse. This is what political critics often point out, and as far as that goes, it’s an accurate observation. The problem is that the observation fuels the myth that jihad terror wouldn’t exist at all if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism, which — as cases like Thomas Jefferson prove — isn’t true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century. Muhammad is the jihad exemplar, and his eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. So while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a particularly hot target for jihad, and irresponsibly so, the jihad imperative exists regardless of what we or any nation does to provoke it.

You don’t have to look far in the world to see the truth of this. The oppressive injustices China has inflicted on the Tibetans are worse than even what western powers and Israel have done in the Muslim world. The Tibetans have bitter grievances against China, and yet suicide-bombing has not been the Tibetan-Buddhist response. That’s because Buddhism doesn’t require homicidal martyrdom. Islam does.

(6) The “Other Religions Have Their Problems Too” Defense.

This strategy is one of evasion. Instead of trying to explain disproportionate amounts of Muslim violence, the apologists pretend that all religions carry an equal potential for violence and harm. How often do we hear that Christianity has its abortion-clinic bombers like Islam has its jihadists? The problem is that this isn’t an analogy. Abortion-clinic bombers are a fringe phenomenon, and none receives endorsement from any mainstream Christians — or even from most fundamentalist Christians for that matter. There are many jihadists and Islamists, on the other hand, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia are to Islam what the Eucharist and resurrection are to Christianity. For every abortion clinic bomber there are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active, and they are properly doing what Islam requires. There’s no comparison here.

Then we hear about the medieval crusades. They are at least an analogy, and prove that a religion can indeed evolve by cutting entirely against the grain of its tradition. But the crusades resulted from the combination of unlikely forces. They copied the jihad in their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation, but in just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.

The crusades were essentially two things, (1) a defensive response to Muslim aggression, and (2) a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggression against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — Muslim offensives, uncontrollable Christian knights, and particularly ambitious popes — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem.  Muslims have never had problems justifying their holy wars. They’ve been the historical norm. The crusades were a peripheral and self-contradictory development in Christianity, and were foreordained to pass.

We can compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use better analogies. Vigilantism, terrorism, and holy wars are not the place to look. A proper example would be something like contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are non-trivial numbers of Catholics who do as the church teaches and refuse to use birth control.

The same is true about Muslims. Most of them are obviously peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not the equivalent of reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously, and for very good reason given the clear imperatives in the Islamic sources. Too many Christians held antisemitic attitudes before Vatican II, also for good reason; the influence of passion plays and other New Testament traditions can’t be overstated. If the Islamic world is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, then Muslims have uphill reformist battles ahead of them.

 

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Salon on “New Atheism” and the Alt-Right (Michael Turton’s Reply)

On his Facebook page, Richard Carrier linked to a Salon article, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How New Atheism Slid into the Alt-Right”, with approval. Like most Salon articles it’s garbage, and Michael Turton wrote a lengthy rebuttal in the FB comments. I’ve pasted his comments below (Carrier’s FB page is public), and added a few observations of my own in bold.

[Turton] Let’s look at the article as the lifelong atheist and political activist and popular niche blogger that I am. After three paragraphs of Harris’ views on Islam (but note, we get no evidence that this is a problem for “the movement” or “the leaders”, just Harris), we get this:

[Salon] This resulted in an exodus of women from the movement who decided that the “new atheist” label was no longer for them. (I know of many diehard atheist women who wanted nothing to do with “new atheism,” which is a real shame.)

[Turton] No evidence is presented for this “exodus”.

[Salon] Along these lines, the new atheist movement has flirted with misogyny for years. Harris’ “estrogen vibe” statement — which yielded a defense rather than a gracious apology — was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned above, there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault, and atheist conferences have pretty consistently been male-dominated — resulting in something like a “gender Matthew effect.”

[Turton] This isn’t a problem with the New Atheist movement. This is a problem with Skepticism in general. I believe the anthropologist David Hess wrote Science in the New Age, which discusses the gendered/gender problem in Skepticism almost 25 years ago. This is not a new issue. Obviously, the author does not understand the issue he is addressing or how the New Atheists are connected to it.

[Salon] Many leading figures have recently allied themselves with small-time television personality Dave Rubin, a guy who has repeatedly given Milo Yiannopoulos — the professional right-wing troll who once said that little boys would stop complaining about being raped by Catholic priests if the priests were as good-looking as he is — a platform on his show. In a tweet from last May, Rubin said “I’d like a signed copy, please” in response to a picture that reads: “Ah. Peace and quiet. #ADayWithoutAWoman.” If, say, Paul Ryan were asked, he’d describe this as “sort of like the textbook definition of a misogynistic comment.” Did any new atheist leaders complain about this tweet? Of course not, much to the frustration of critical thinkers like myself who actually care about how women are treated in society.

[Turton] “Many leading figures have allied…” No evidence is presented for “leading figures” who are “allied”. Connecting Milo to the New Atheists in this way is a smear. “Did atheist leaders complain about this tweet?” Seriously? I doubt Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris spends much time combing the literally millions of tweets of other atheists for things to police them on. They have productive lives. And why would we expect them to complain about a tweet of someone whom the author himself identifies as a marginal figure (!). Excellent clickbait, that rhetorical question — it is so good the author resorts to it twice (“Has any leader….?”.) You could go on asking “Has any leader…?” rhetorical questions all day long. A question like that is designed to emotionally appeal to the article’s target audience, without actually making any survey or showing why anyone would bother to respond to a tweet from a marginal figure. As if silence constituted endorsement.

Turton is right that connecting Milo to the new atheist movement is a ludicrous smear, but I would also point out that Dave Rubin runs a good show, and he is to be commended for having Milo Yiannopoulos on as a guest, just as Bill Maher did on Real Time. Reason being: when leftists try shouting down and silencing people — even idiot trolls like Milo — it becomes virtuous to give a platform to those idiots you would otherwise ignore. Chris Hayes made the same point about the “Draw Muhammad cartoon” contest held in Garland Texas two years ago (and it was refreshing to see a liberal like Hayes school his fellow leftists). When jihadists respond to cartoons of Muhammad by killing people, it’s necessary to be offensive and draw more cartoons, otherwise you’re catering to sharia blasphemy law and letting jihadists rule you through fear. Or, as Hayes made the analogy with his own profession, if he were considering doing a segment that he was on the fence about or didn’t even like, but then someone came to him and said, “You can’t do that segment because of an advertiser”, then he would absolutely do the segment, because “It has to be the case that we can do that segment”.

Ditto for Milo. Neither Dave Rubin nor Bill Maher make a habit of inviting trolls, but they will when everyone else resorts to thuggish silencing strategies that are only getting worse on college campuses. Objections about being inflammatory, or unfair to an advertiser, etc., go straight out the window at the moment the aggrieved group tells you to stop or be stopped, to submit or be killed, etc.

[Salon] In fact, the magazine Skeptic just published a glowing review of Yiannopoulos’ recent book, “Dangerous.” The great irony of this intellectual misstep is that Yiannopoulos embodies the opposite of nearly every trend of moral progress that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, identifies in his book “The Moral Arc.”

[Turton] (1) One author at Skeptic appears to like Milo… clearly this means that the New Atheist movement loves Milo. Can the author show us numerous New Atheist personalities who like Milo? Nope. (2) Do New Atheists control the editorial decision-making of The Skeptic? I think not, which means that — you guessed it — this is a smear, typical of Salon clickbait articles. Even better, the piece has a clickbait image at the top that puts Harris together with Milo the idiot. But it is photoshopped. A smear so obvious no one noticed it.

[Salon] Perhaps the most alarming instance of irrationality in recent memory, though, is Sam Harris’ recent claim that black people are less intelligent than white people.

[Turton] The author then spends four paragraphs explaining to us about IQ and race. Harris’ views are totally nutcase and evil. Are they widely held in the New Atheist movement or among its leaders? It is not difficult to find Dawkins saying that race is real but meaningless. Obviously, if Harris being an idiot proves that the New Atheists are evil racists, why doesn’t Dawkins saying race is meaningless prove the opposite?

Moreover, Hitchens, whom the author mentions, has written abusively about the idiocy of the race-IQ connection:

“There is, and there always has been, an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of I.Q.” [“Minority Report,” Nation, 11/28/94]

“Linguistics, genetics, paleontology, anthropology: All are busily demonstrating that we as a species have no objective problem of ‘race.’ What we still do seem to have are all these racists.” [“Minority Report,” Nation , 11/28/94]

Again, very obviously — if a “leader” of the movement asserting X means the whole movement is X, then why doesn’t Hitchens’ savage denunciation of that mean anything? Shouldn’t both Hitch and Dawkins’ remarks show that the New Atheist movement is solid on race? But no… painting Harris as a worshiper of Murray and a fool on race and IQ makes for much better clickbait. Salon’s clickbait articles work by rhetorical appeal to the “reasonable middle”. This is hardly the first such clickbait article on atheism at Salon, one reason I stopped reading Salon was because of the regular flow of such articles.

I agree with Turton that the sins of one person don’t reflect the views of a movement, but for the record, I seriously doubt that Sam Harris is, as Turton says, “totally nutcase and evil” on the subject of IQ and race. I admit I haven’t followed his views and interactions with Murray, but I have found that every time Harris is smeared on other subjects (like torture, or Islam), his views have either been distorted, exaggerated, or deliberately taken out of context. (Turton himself points this out in the case of Ben Carson below.)

Even Murray, while holding what I take to be incorrect views on the subject of race, has been overly maligned, and I doubt he is a racist. He’s an advocate for gay marriage and has two half-Asian kids for Christ’s sake. His error lies in dismissing the effects of socialization on race data, but his arguments should be rejected or upheld on the basis of scientific methodology, not political ideology. Reasoned refutations, not ad hominems and shut-down strategies, are the proper counters.

[Turton] Then comes this brilliance:

[Salon] On a personal note, a recent experience further cemented my view that the new atheists are guilty of false advertising. A podcaster named Lalo Dagach saw that I had criticized Harris’ understanding of Islamic terrorism, which I believe lacks scholarly rigor.

[Turton] The author spends two paragraphs discussing some marginal podcaster’s behavior towards the author as if that were somehow indicative of an entire movement. How? The podcaster is one marginal person. This personal digression is merely a bit of entitled whining about being attacked online that says nothing about New Atheism as a whole. If whipping up followers to attack people were a proclivity of New Atheists as a whole and the author could provide many examples, then perhaps this might have a place in this essay. Otherwise, no. It’s pure whining designed — once again — to appeal to the emotions of the audience which has already been nodding along. The author still hasn’t learned that if you jump in online, people are going to abuse you.

[Salon] From censoring people online while claiming to support free speech to endorsing scientifically unfounded claims about race and intelligence to asserting, as Harris once did, that the profoundly ignorant Ben Carson would make a better president than the profoundly knowledgeable Noam Chomsky, the movement has repeatedly shown itself to lack precisely the values it once avowed to uphold.

[Turton] This sweeping conclusion is hilarious and such stunningly obvious clickbait. “From censoring people online” — the author conflates his own experience with some nobody podcaster with the habits of the entire movement. You can’t “censor people online” unless you are the Communist Party of China and own the entire internet. Anyone can comment anywhere on the internet, at least in most of the West. Harris’s comments on race and Islam somehow stand for an entire movement. The provocative one on Ben Carson is especially hilarious, since Harris dismisses Carson as a nutcase in the very next sentence (which the author ignores, of course). Harris was obviously indulging in rhetoric to make a point about the “Islamic threat.” But obviously, it isn’t good clickbait to note that Harris was just being rhetorical.

Indeed. As I said above, Harris is regularly taken out of context, if not outright misrepresented. That tends to be what happens to those who speak unwelcome truths.

[Turton] If you are going to say “This movement is X and I don’t like it!” then you need to provide many examples/surveys etc that show that the whole movement is X. None are provided here, the article is simply a clickbait attack largely on Harris, designed to appeal to the audience of New Atheists like himself (and myself) who wish Harris would STFU about Islam and that they would address the mysogyny in the skeptic movement.

Turton is correct that the Salon article is a ridiculous hit piece on Harris. However, Harris should not stop speaking about Islam. His task has been a thankless one in explaining that (1) Islam has more dangerous and toxic ideas than other religions, (2) these ideas (jihad, sharia, geographical expansion) saturate the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sira, and thus have always been mainstream and mandatory in all Islamic schools of jurisprudence, and (3) they are believed and enacted on by a disproportionate number of Muslims (who may be a minority, but by no means the fringe). He should be applauded for this, along with Maajid Nawaz (Harris’ colleague), Asra Nomani, Aayan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher — people who are far more progressive than leftists who cry “Islamophobia” in the name of cultural tolerance.

(“Islamophobia” is a propagandist term in any case, intended to shut down criticism of the religion Islam in advance. The correct term for racism is “anti-Muslim bigotry”, just as we use “anti-Semitism” and not “Judaiaphobia”).

In sum, I agree with Michael Turton that the Salon article is worthless, but would go further in correcting the smears of certain individuals.

Chances of being Killed in a Jihad Attack

The Cato Institute has presented helpful data estimating the annual chance of being killed by jihadists in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as compared to in the United States. Though I think these analysts are a bit blasé about Islamic terrorism being a “manageable threat”, I agree that it’s important to keep perspective. Even in the highest-risk country (the UK), according to this analysis, your annual chances of being killed by a jihadist are woefully slim.

Over a year ago I explained the opposite problem, how the media downplays the jihad threat by misusing statistics and making pseudo-comparisons to other forms of terrorism to create a false impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad. In fact there is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian”, or such equivalent threat in the same numbers or backed by a mainstream ideology. The reason why there are so many jihad terrorists is because their activities are required by Islamic law which derives in turn from very plausible readings of the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith. And yet for all the routinely active jihadists, we should take some consolation from the following statistics from Cato, and not fall into fear-mongering.

 

Table 1: Fatalities and Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack, 1975–June 20th, 2017

Fatalities

Annual Chance of Dying

United Kingdom

2,632

1 in 964,531

Belgium

64

1 in 6,936,545

France

506

1 in 4,984,301

Sweden

20

1 in 19,001,835

Germany

148

1 in 23,234,378

United States

3568

1 in 3,241,363

 

Table 2: Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack by Period

Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack

1975–2000

2001–2017

United States

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 1,602,021

France

1 in 6,059,061

1 in 4,006,878

Belgium

1 in 9,611,873

1 in 4,373,511

United Kingdom

1 in 590,389

1 in 8,796,562

Sweden

1 in 22,145,655

1 in 15,858,016

United States (exc. 9/11)

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 19,772,468

Germany

1 in 17,338,091

1 in 47,429,484

“The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam”

Foreign Policy magazine has an article called The Five Ways Donald Trump is Wrong about Islam. Granting that Trump is awful on the subject, this article has a few problems of its own. Let’s go through the five points, all of which are aimed at refuting the idea that the Muslim world poses a threat to the United States.

(1) The Balance of Power is Overwhelmingly in Our Favor. The Muslim world is weaker than we are. This is why foreign powers have intervened in Muslim-majority countries repeatedly over the past couple of centuries, while the reverse hasn’t occurred since the siege of Vienna in 1529. Not once.

Agreed. No problem here.

(2) Islam is Deeply Divided. The Islamic world is more disunited today than at any time in recent memory. It is divided among many different states, and many of those states (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia, or Turkey and Syria) don’t get along. There are vast geographic and cultural differences between Indonesia and countries like Yemen or Morocco or Saudi Arabia. There’s also the core division between the Sunnis and the Shiites, not to mention a number of other minor schisms between various Islamic offshoots.

This is mostly a non-sequitur. Islam has been deeply divided since time immemorial, and even in times of fragmentation the Islamic world has waged war abroad as they carry out sectarian strife. So no, this isn’t really a good argument.

(3) Terrorism is not that Big a Threat. We live in a world where lots of bad things can happen. You might get into a car accident. You could get cancer. You could mishandle a power tool and injure yourself severely. You may fall off a ladder, slip in a bathtub, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up stopping a stray bullet. Or maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself imperiled by a radical Islamic extremist. You wouldn’t know it if you listened to Trump, to CNN, to Fox News, or to most of our politicians, but that last danger is miniscule. Not zero, but really, really small. We’ve been obsessed with terrorism ever since 9/11 but the reality is that the risk it poses is way, way, way down the list of possible harms that might befall us.

Agreed. Or as I said in last year’s post, “Even though I am more likely to get killed by a jihadist than a Christian extremist, I am still, for example, 1904 times more likely to get killed in a car accident driving to work in the morning, 452 times more likely to die from risky sexual behavior, and just as likely to be crushed to death by moving heavy furniture around my home.” Risk is built into our everyday lives. It’s true that jihad terrorists exist in numbers that are more disproportionate than Leftists acknowledge, and they are routinely active by the thousands on a daily basis. But your odds of being nailed by a jihadist (in America) are still woefully slim. From that perspective, Trump and Bannon are fear-mongers.

(4) “Creeping Sharia” is a Fairy Tale. The supposed danger is the slow infiltration of our society by foreigners who refuse to assimilate and who will eventually try to impose their alien values on us. If we’re not ceaselessly vigilant, we are told, someday our daughters will be wearing hijabs and we’ll all be praying to Mecca. This anxiety almost sounds right out of Dr. Strangelove. There is simply no evidence of “creeping Sharia” here in the United States, and no risk of it occurring in the future.

Creeping sharia is actually quite real, as the case of Europe has been proving, and there could be a risk of the U.S. becoming more problematic as time goes on. Admittedly I don’t see this happening in the near future, so I can concede the point. But this is a poorly stated opinion.

(5) The “Clash of Civilizations” is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The final reason to reject Bannon and company’s depiction of a vast and looming Muslim threat to us is that this worldview encourages us to act in ways that make the problem worse instead of better. If U.S. leaders keep (a) demonizing an entire religion, (b) impose ill-considered bans on Muslim refugees, and most important of all, (c) continue to intervene throughout the Arab and Islamic world with military force, they will convince more and more people that Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were right when they claimed the West had “declared war” on their religion. The mountain of evidence shows that anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is overwhelmingly a response to U.S. policy, and not because they “hate our freedoms”.

This statement is true and false. Let’s break it down into the three parts:

(a) First is the question of Islam as a religion, which this article gets wrong. It’s not the religion of Islam that we should be trying to protect from being demonized. No idea or philosophy or religion is beyond being put through the shredder if it deserves to be. It is Muslim people, rather, whom we should not demonize. (That’s why “Islamophobia” is a propagandist term; the proper term is anti-Muslim bigotry.) We should be criticizing Islam with integrity and without apology, as Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani are doing. It is Leftists and members of the Muslim community who demonize these proactive heroes who belong in the hall of shame.

(b) Second is the question of the Muslim bans, which this article gets right. Trump’s moratoriums (“bans”) are ill-considered, counter-productive, and not justifiable in the interest of security. He should never have signed them.

(c) Third is the question of our military interventions, which this article gets half-right and half-wrong. It’s true that our war-mongering in the Middle-East is much to blame in exacerbating the problem of jihad terror and turning the jihadist ire on us. In that sense, the anti-Americanism in the Muslim world owes to our interventionist policies. Unfortunately this fuels the myth that jihadist terror wouldn’t exist if not for western war-mongering and/or imperialism. That’s not true. The Islamic world has been expansionist and war-driven since the seventh century, and Muhammad is the jihad exemplar. Thomas Jefferson found this out when the Barbary States attacked innocent American ships and took slaves — in the days long before “American foreign policy” existed. When he asked the Muslims why they attacked, the response of the Barbary pirates was the same as that of al-Qaeda leaders today: Muhammad’s eternal command is to wage war on infidels, and to bring them under caliphate rule. In other words, while our misadventures in the Muslim world have made us a hot target for jihad — and irresponsibly so — the jihad imperative exists regardless of what any nation does to provoke it. The command for Muslims to wage war remains mandatory in all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and that’s why Islam needs a reform.

“God is all for immigration”: A fundamentalist-Bible proof

hqdefaultOver ten years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson proved from the bible that God is all for immigration (May 7, 2006). It’s interesting that this sermon is being recirculated online in view of the current “Muslim ban”, which deserves a few comments before getting to Anderson’s argument.

Some are defending Trump’s executive order by noting that it isn’t really a ban on Muslims entering the country, but only a moratorium (temporary halt) on immigration from seven particular jihadist hotspots. While that is correct, it’s not the most compelling justification, given that Saudia Arabia isn’t on the list, even though it spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and even though most of the 9/11 hijackers came from there. Not a single American has been killed by a citizen of any of the seven banned countries in 40 years, so the question is why do we need a moratorium for proper vetting to occur?

On the other hand, Trump’s critics aren’t always on the ball. Their claim that places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon were excluded from the order because of Trump’s business interests is highly questionable. The list of seven countries was established in laws signed by Obama in the last two years, and Trump’s executive order does not even list the seven countries by name except (obviously) Syria. It simply refers to the “countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).” All Trump did was lift a preexisting template. I’m not saying it’s a good one, and I don’t support a moratorium in any case — not even against a place like Saudi Arabia. It’s just not a proper way of dealing with refugee plights, and I believe it’s also an ineffective counter to the (very real) jihad threat. But let’s not spin-doctor Trump’s motives either.

On to Anderson’s sermon…

The sermon is noteworthy because Anderson is a renowned hate-preacher (at least when it comes to gay people) and he is so hardcore in his fundamentalist beliefs that he has been disowned by most other fundies. So when he goes out of his way to condemn Donald Trump as an “abomination to the Lord”, and that anyone who supports Donald Trump is “wicked as hell” (see here), and on top of that defends the rights of immigrants in the eyes of God, with assertions that Muslims or anyone else should be able to come and practice their religion in the U.S. without any governmental interference — well, that’s rather saying something.

Here is his biblical proof:

**** God is all for immigration****. “Everyone in America is an immigrant,” says Anderson, “except for the Native American Indians,” and so anyone opposing immigration sets themselves against God’s will. Against those who say that the less people we have, the better off we are, God’s wisdom says that the more people we have, the better off we are (Proverbs 14:28). God, moreover, specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant:

  • “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34).
  • “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33).
  • Ruth wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

Anderson offers the following caveats:

1. Immigrants must obey the laws of the land. God, in other words, doesn’t approve illegal immigration. Natives and immigrants are bound by the same laws: “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as for one of your own country” (Leviticus 24:22). No double standards are allowed.

2. Immigrants must learn the language of the land. Anderson appeals to the example of Nehemiah, who went ballistic over immigrants who couldn’t speak native Hebrew: “I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.'” (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

3. Immigrants can practice their religion, but they must respect the religion of the land. Anderson is a staunch libertarian: “Immigrants should have freedom of religion, and to practice whatever religion they want. If they want to be a Muslim, that’s fine. God bless them, I don’t want them to be forced to be a Christian, I’m totally against that. I’m 100% for religious freedom.” But he also believes they must respect Christianity in the way immigrants had to respect the Israelite faith in Old Testament times: “When they start blaspheming the religion of the land, they cross the line (Leviticus 24:16). They can practice whatever religion they want, but they have no right to come here and badmouth the religion of the land, or to try and change it.”

Anderson says, “I’m probably the most non-racist person you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life. I’m not racist at all. If half of this nation was Hispanic, or if 75% of this nation was Hispanic, or if 99% was Hispanic, or black, or anything, I would be thrilled. But what I’m against is when they say, ‘I don’t want to be like an American with freedom. I want to bring my culture and my language and change your country, so it can be like the hell-hole that I came from.'”

That last may not be the most diplomatic way of putting it, but for a fundamentalist of Anderson’s stripe, his biblical case for immigration is, on whole, rather impressive. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing it preached from more pulpits across the nation.

Robert Spencer’s manufactured dispute with Sam Harris

spencer-harrisRobert Spencer of Jihad Watch claims that Sam Harris has “lost his nerve” and is no longer opposed to Islamic supremacism in any meaningful way. This is frankly bullshit, and Harris has responded appropriately, to which Spencer replied in turn. Read the interchange here.

Spencer is not impressed by Harris’s association with Maajid Nawaz (in the photo to the right), which is unfortunate since Nawaz is just what we need today: a Muslim believer who has been pushing for reform in the Islamic world. But the part I want to focus on is the presidential election. Spencer grounds much of his grievance in Harris’ support for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. This despite the fact that Harris (as  mentioned in his reply to Spencer) has called out Hillary for her (and Obama’s) woefully inadequate policies which enable jihad.

But it’s worse than that. Not only does Sam Harris agree more than disagree with Robert Spencer on the subject of Hillary Clinton, Robert Spencer agrees more than disagrees with Sam Harris on the subject of Donald Trump. Or at least he used to. In the past he has excoriated Trump as strongly as Harris has. This, for example, is what he said last December:

“I will never support Trump for President, even were he to knock on my door, get on one knee, and ask for my vote. I could never support a candidate who advocates kowtowing to violent intimidation and submitting to the Islamic supremacist war against the freedom of speech, as he did after the jihad attack on our event in Garland, Texas.” (Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch.)

Here’s another:

“Donald Trump shows here that he is a very, very frightening candidate: he would restrict the freedom of speech as part of some attempt to deal with the jihad threat: in other words, he would have us give up our freedom in exchange for security… Trump is just the sort of shoot-from-the-hip blowhard demagogue who could administer the coup de grace to a system of freedom that is already staggering under body blows given to it for nearly seven years by Barack Obama.” (Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch)

Please note that I’m not faulting Spencer for changing his mind and voting for Trump. Anyone can change their mind. I changed my mind. I had intended to vote third party, but in the week before the election made a Facebook call advising everyone to vote for Hillary Clinton, given how close Trump was closing in on the polls. Anyone can change their mind, and that’s fine. Again: I am not criticizing Spencer for changing his mind.

My point is rather that for someone who said only last year that he would “never support Trump for President, even were he to knock on my door, get on one knee, and ask for my vote”, and then now decides to make a big issue over Sam Harris’s decision to not vote for Donald Trump (as Spencer himself said he wouldn’t) — that’s a fucking hypocrisy way off the scales.

It’s even worse than that. Not only has Harris called out Hillary Clinton (and Obama) repeatedly for their inadequacies, he went so far as to say that he could have conceivably voted for Donald Trump, if essentially he were a single-issue voter. This is what he said in an interview on the Rubin Report:

“If I was just concerned about terrorism, and then I saw Clinton and Obama not making any sense in the aftermath of something like Orlando, and then defending that obscurantism with a sanctimonious and bullying speech [Obama’s speech, in which he refused to acknowledge Islam as the major factor which drove the Orlando shooter]… If I just had that to go on, then I could see voting for Trump.” (Sam Harris, “Liberals have made Trump possible”, (3:53-5:17))

So not only do we have (a) Robert Spencer swearing he will never vote for Trump, but then does, we have (b) Sam Harris admitting that if he screened out all other issues he weighs in assessing presidential candidates, and just focused on Islam and the problem of global jihad, he could conceivably vote for Trump. The difference is that Sam Harris (like me) isn’t a single-issue voter. Robert Spencer is.

It’s clear that Spencer has manufactured a dispute with Harris, and they are far more alike than different. It’s bad enough that we have to move mountains in order to convince leftists how wrong they are on this subject. Fabricating disagreements like this doesn’t help. Harris’ reply to Spencer is bang-on. At the same time, I commend both Robert Spencer and Sam Harris equally for debating cordially with each other. This is how discussions should proceed between the right and left.

Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.