Recently the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations put out a report arguing for the United States to pay more attention to religion as it conducted its foreign affairs. The report did not merely put this in the context of terrorism, but it certainly included terrorism among the issues it addressed.
The report argued that:
Without a more serious and thoughtful engagement with religion across a host of issues and actors, U.S. foreign policy will miss important opportunities…. And, we will undermine our ability to protect citizens from violence perpetrated by religious extremists. Indeed, pushing an uncompromising secular alternative can have the unintended effect of feeding extremism by further threatening traditional sources of personal, cultural, and religious identity.
At about the same time, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University posted an article on ReadingIslam.com summarizing the key points of his 2007 book, Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Esposito implicitly argues for less attention to religion as we consider issues of counterterrorism.
Who’s right? Esposito notes that:
For decades, scholars and pundits have been debating about how terrorists and extremists are created. The causes of terrorism are said to be psychological (terrorists are abnormal, deranged, irrational), sociological (they lack education, are alienated social misfits), economic (they’re poor, unemployed, hopeless), political (they reject democracy, freedom, human rights), and religious (they’re fanatics, zealots, believers in a violent religion that rejects modernization and technology).
He then goes on to say that his studies–which are quite consistent with other work in the field–suggest that things like unemployment, poverty and lack of education do not appear to cause terrorism. Nor are terrorists typically crazy.
So, is it religion that causes terrorism? Does Islam in particular have a terrorism problem? Esposito thinks not and he observes that “radical” Muslims, which he defines as those who thought that the September 11 attacks were justified, don’t seem to be more religious than “moderate” Muslims. He writes:
Does personal piety correlate with radical views? The answer is no. Large majorities of those [Muslims] with radical views and moderate views (94% and 90%, respectively) say that religion is an important part of their daily lives. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.
He goes on to suggest that radicals simply wield religion instrumentally:
Examining the link between religion and terrorism requires a larger and more complex context. Throughout history, close ties have existed among religion, politics, and societies. Leaders have used and hijacked religion to recruit members, to justify their actions, and to glorify fighting and dying in a sacred struggle. [Emphasis added.]
Esposito uses the example of suicide bombings as a proxy for his broader argument that the cause of terrorism is political grievances. He draws on the work of Robert Pape to argue that suicide bombings typically are done for strategic political purposes. In other words, Esposito seems to be saying that politics/grievances–>violence and also politics/grievances–>religious rhetoric.
Here is where the conceptual trouble starts. Nowhere does Esposito explain why the causal relationships might not go in the opposite direction: religion –>politics/grievances–>violence. The possibility that religion might shape political views seems like a very commonsense idea that should not be dismissed out of hand. Think, for instance, of all the people who are raised Catholic from birth and then later in life, when they grow old enough to learn what abortion is, decide that they are pro-life. Is it a surprise that they should make such a decision? I think not. Surely no one would think it unreasonable to assume that many of them were influenced by their faith as they decided which side of this political question to come down on.
I’m a big believer that absent a specific reason to think otherwise, we should believe what other people say. Sayyid Qutb, the founder of Salafi Jihadism spoke to precisely this question in his manifesto, Milestones, albeit from a conspiratorial angle. He seemed clear in his mind that he was describing (and calling for) a religious struggle:
The enemies of the Believers may wish to change this struggle into an economic or political or racial struggle, so that the Believers become confused concerning the true nature of the struggle…The Believers must not be deceived, and must understand that this is a trick. The enemy, by changing the nature of the struggle, intends to deprive them of their weapon of true victory.
Now it is true that Esposito makes a convincing case—one that I believe—that there is no particular connection between Islam writ large and violence, but that is where his analysis stops. What about particular kinds of Islam? I’m perfectly willing to grant that Islam doesn’t have a terrorism problem, but I also think that there is compelling case to be made that Salafi Jihadism, a sub-set of Islam does.
Worse yet, Esposito seems implicitly to be suggesting that there is only one cause for terrorist violence. However, there is no particular reason to think that that must be true. In fact, one of my personal analytic biases is that almost nothing is monocausal outside the realm of Newtonian physics. Might it not be the case that one’s politics and one’s religion affect each other and that sometimes violence spurts out from that tangled interaction?
The Chicago study, then, is right on the money, at least as far as I am concerned. Ideas, including religious ideas, matter in the real world. In the end, we should address legitimate political grievances when we can but also we should not be afraid to recognize the power of and do battle with pernicious ideas, even when they come in religious form. This requires a far more sophisticated public discourse about the relationship between religion and violence than typically comes from the Islamophobes or from scholars of Islam such as Professor Esposito.