Three Simple Truths About Terror, Religion, and Islam

Eiffel Tower: The most well known symbol of Paris

Eiffel Tower: The most well known symbol of Paris

Huff Post: by Clay Farris Naff

One: Terrorism is the illusion of power. It only becomes powerful when people fall for it. Picture a magician who performs a variation on the trick of sawing a person in half. The “victim” screams in agony as the saw appears to slice her in half. The magician then turns to the audience, raises his arms, and says, “Bow down, or you shall be next.” This can only work if people fail to recognize that he’s not a magician at all; he’s an illusionist.


Of course, the people who died or were injured at the hands of the Paris attackers were real victims, and their losses are both tragic and outrageous. The illusion is that the attackers are legion, that they can do more than mount sporadic criminal attacks on innocent citizens.

Like magicians, terrorists go back to biblical times. When the Romans conquered Jerusalem, an underground resistance sprang up. They were known as the Sicarii, for the short, thin daggers, or sicae, they carried concealed in their cloaks. At public gatherings, they would pull out these daggers to stab Romans and their sympathizers, then blend into the crowd after the attack to escape detection. While this created terror, its only practical effect was to ratchet up the savagery of Rome’s national security system. Thousands of Jews, including one called Joshua (later mistranslated as “Jesus”) were crucified. The Roman empire continued to rule until its collapse many centuries later — by which time the peaceful ideological revolution known as Christianity had gained control of the Emperor himself and all his centers of power.

Now look at modern-day Israel, which since 1989 has endured scores of suicide bombings. The attacks brought misery to the lives of victims and their loved ones but advanced the Palestinian cause not one inch. Indeed, they have made the lives of Palestinians far worse, as Israel built walls and blockaded much of their territory. As Steven Pinker noted years ago, terrorists almost never win.

In Israel, suicide bombers tend to pop up at random. Why in Paris were there three coordinated teams of attackers? To create the illusion of an army. It worked: That’s the term that President Hollande has unfortunately adopted. While details remain foggy, it appears that as few as seven terrorists may have been directly involved.

History’s lessons are clear: Terrorists aim to provoke overreaction, so that their numbers will swell. If you don’t fall for the illusion, they remain puny. Dedicated intelligence and policing can dismantle terrorist networks. Mass round ups, political hysteria, revenge attacks, and in the most grievous extreme, invasion of a country that harbored neither international terrorist cells nor weapons of mass destruction only makes matters worse.

Two: Like advertising, terrorism exploits our emotional vulnerabilities. I don’t suppose terrorists sit around studying evolutionary psychology, but they don’t have to. Again, like advertisers, they have both intuition and trial and error to draw on. Many of our emotions evolved to deal swiftly with life-or-death threats. If you start crossing a river and spot a crocodile on the move, you can’t afford to engage in the rational analysis of a decision tree that weighs the opportunity on the other side against the odds that the croc will select you as its prey. Your emotions kick in and you sprint the hell out of there. Similarly, if someone starts firing an automatic weapon in a concert hall, you don’t pause to think about the odds. You instinctively assume that you’re a likely victim and either flee or freeze — or in some rare and remarkably courageous instances, leap on the attacker yourself.

But here’s the real point: if you hear about such an attack, you automatically simulate it in your mind. If you see images or video of it, the experience becomes even more vivid. There are excellent evolutionary reasons for this: in the era of evolutionary adaptation, when we lived in bands of about 150, the chance to learn from witnessing another being attacked and to imbue that memory with a powerful emotional stamp raised our chances of surviving such an encounter ourselves. Calculating the odds of victimization when you live in a city of millions or a world of billions never came into it. And just to be on the safe side, we’re evolved to overgeneralize about the attacker. Yes, it’s true: bigotry is instinctive.

The reality is that terrorism directly strikes a tiny number of people. Our electronic media, however, ensure that all of us run the simulation in our minds. Unless we consciously push back, we all become secondary victims. That’s a terrible mistake. It’s one thing to sympathize with the real victims and their loved ones, and indeed France itself; it’s another to reward the terrorists by giving in to outdated emotional instincts. The most consequential of these is the desire for overgeneralized revenge.

Three: Islam, per se, is not the problem. Neither is religion generally. I’m an atheist who often finds himself under rhetorical attack by atheists. Why? Because I won’t succumb to the temptation to fire off a broadside condemnation of religion when something like this happens. I don’t even train my rhetorical cannons on Islam, which means that Sam Harris fans and conservative Christians join in accusing me of coddling Muslims. But I want to hew as close as possible to the truth.

So, the truth about Islam: It’s just another religion. By that I mean it can serve as the justification for the most depraved, heartless acts imaginable — slavery, rape, mutilation, genocide, and, yes, suicide bombing, to name a few. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, no religion is free of the taint of extremism. But for most people, most of the time, religion does not operate this way. Instead, it furnishes community, the comforts of ritual, and (for better or worse) moral guidance. Political Islam, like the Holy Roman Empire before it, goes well beyond these basics of mainstream religion, but that is a political matter.

The reason that a portion of religion can and all too often does give sanction to atrocities is that it easily lends itself to utopian beliefs. Charismatic leaders, driven by the desire to maximize their power, can best do so by wrapping themselves in the banner of some passionate, utopian ideology. This can be secular. The most infamous of these, Marxism and fascism, led to the violent deaths of 100 million people in the 20th century. But secular utopianism has one vulnerability: promises of a worker’s paradise or a thousand-year reign are subject to falsification. Not so with religion. As long as preachers can make God’s rewards conditional (on martyrdom, universal conformity with the Law, or some other future action), disillusionment never has to set in.

To prevent terrorism — and several other evils — we have to understand its real causes. Not religion, not poverty (that’s a slander on the poor!), not even humiliation, though it’s fuel for the fire. The cause is what I call the neuron bomb: the infiltration of a vulnerable mind by an explosive utopian ideology that provides warrant for any manner of atrocity. The way to stop it is to equip young minds with the mental tools — critical thinking, a grasp of naturalism, and compassion — to resist the infiltration of their minds. That means exposing religion generally to searching critique, but so be it. Either the religious have faith in their faith or they don’t.

None of this is meant to trivialize the all-too-real suffering in Paris. At least 127 are dead, and hundreds more wounded are suffering in hospitals. It is outrageous, and I too thirst for an end to ISIS and its ilk. I only hope that the French and the rest of us don’t fall for the illusion that Islam or all Muslims are to blame.


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