Dangerously Uninformed: Religion and Violence

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 18:  A mourner attends a vigil for victims of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida nearly
BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 18: A mourner attends a vigil for victims of a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida nearly a week earlier, in front of the United States embassy on June 18, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Fifty people were killed and at least as many injured during a Latin music event at the Pulse club in the worst terror attack in the U.S. since 9/11. The American-born gunman had pledged allegiance to ISIS, though officials have yet to find conclusive evidence of his having any direct connection with foreign extremists. The incident has added fuel to the ongoing debate about gun control in the country. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Maarten Boudry argues that religion and religion alone motivates ISIS and ISIS-like extremists to violence. He claims (without citation) that other factors, "socio-economic disenfranchisement, unemployment, troubled family backgrounds, discrimination and racism," have been "repeatedly refuted." Thinking that religion plays any lesser motivational role is, he claims, "a dramatic failure of imagination."

Since the claim that religion plays a lesser motivational role in extremist violence is empirically well-supported, I think Boudry's claim is "a dramatic failure of imagination." Moreover, I think it's dangerously uninformed.

In this essay, I'll explain why this claim is uniformed. In the followup, I'll explain why it's dangerous. You can read my argument in its entirety here.

It's easy to think that the troubles in Ireland were religious because, you know, Protestant vs. Catholic. But giving the sides religious names hides the real sources of conflict--discrimination, poverty, imperialism, autonomy, nationalism and shame; no one in Ireland was fighting over theological doctrines such as transubstantiation or justification (they probably couldn't explain their theological differences). It's easy to think that the Bosnian genocide of 40,000 Muslims was motivated by Christian commitment (the Muslim victims were killed by Christian Serbs). But these convenient monikers ignore (a) how shallow post-Communist religious belief was and, more importantly, (b) such complex causes as class, land, ethnic identity, economic disenfranchisement, and nationalism.

It's also easy to think that members of ISIS and al-Qaeda are motivated by religious belief, but...

Blaming such behaviors on religion commits the fundamental attribution error: attributing the cause of behavior to internal factors such as personality characteristics or dispositions, while minimizing or ignoring external, situational factors. As an example: if I'm late, I attribute my tardiness to an important phone call or heavy traffic, but if you're late I attribute it to a (single) character flaw (you are irresponsible) and ignore possible external contributing causes. So, when Arabs or Muslims commit an act of violence we instantly believe that it's due to their radical faith, all the while ignoring possible and even likely contributing causes.

Let's look at some examples.

Within minutes of Omar Mateen's massacre of gays in Orlando, before learning that he had pledged allegiance to ISIS during the attack, he was labeled a terrorist. Pledging fealty to ISIS sealed the deal for most people - he was a terrorist, motivated by radical Islam. If a white (Christian) man kills 10 people, he's crazy. If a Muslim does, he's a terrorist, motivated by exactly one thing - his extremist faith.

Yet, Mateen was, by all counts, a violent, angry, abusive, disruptive, alienated, racist, American, male, homophobe. He was likely bi-polar. With easy access to guns. According to his wife and father, he wasn't very religious. His multiple pledges of allegiance to warring factions such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah suggest that he knew little of any ideology or theology. The CIA and FBI have found no connection with ISIS. Mateen was a hateful, violent, (mostly) irreligious homophobe who killed 50 people on "Latin Night" at the club.

While the structure of motivation for Mateen is murky, it would be bizarre to elevate his religious beliefs (such as they were) to some special motivational status.

Mohammad Atta, leader of the 9-11 attacks, left a suicide note indicating his fealty to Allah:

So remember God, as He said in His book: 'Oh Lord, pour your patience upon us and make our feet steadfast and give us victory over the infidels.' And His words: 'And the only thing they said Lord, forgive our sins and excesses and make our feet steadfast and give us victory over the infidels.' And His prophet said: 'Oh Lord, You have revealed the book, You move the clouds, You gave us victory over the enemy, conquer them and give us victory over them.' Give us victory and make the ground shake under their feet. Pray for yourself and all your brothers that they may be victorious and hit their targets and ask God to grant you martyrdom facing the enemy, not running away from it, and for Him to grant you patience and the feeling that anything that happens to you is for Him.

Surely we should take Atta at his word.

Yet Atta (along with his fellow terrorists) seldom attended mosque, partied almost nightly, was a heavy drinker, snorted cocaine, and ate pork chops. Hardly the stuff of Muslim submission. When his stripper girlfriend ended their relationship, he broke into her apartment and killed her cat and kittens, disemboweling and dismembering them and then distributing their body parts throughout the apartment for her to find later. Makes Atta's suicide note seems more like reputation management than pious confession. Or maybe it was a desperate hope that his actions would attain some sort of cosmic significance that his otherwise insignificant life lacked.

When Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, recently conducted field research with ISIS prisoners, she found them "woefully ignorant of Islam" and unable to answer questions about "Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate." Not surprising then that when wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed were caught boarding a plane in England authorities discovered in their luggage Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. In the same article, Erin Saltman, senior counter-extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says that "Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment."

England's MI5's behavioral science unit, in a report leaked to the Guardian, revealed that, "far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices." Indeed, the report argued, "a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization."

Why would England's MI5 think that religion plays virtually no role in extremism?

Boudry is half-right about those "other factors." There is no single, well-established profile of terrorists. Some are poor, some are not. Some are unemployed, some are not. Some are poorly educated, some are not. Some are culturally isolated, some are not. Nonetheless, these sorts of external factors, while neither necessary nor jointly sufficient, do contribute to radicalization in some people under certain circumstances. Each extremist has his or her own unique socio-psychological profile (which makes their identification nearly impossible).

In parts of Africa, with sky-high unemployment rates for 18 to 34-year-olds, ISIS targets the unemployed and impoverished; ISIS offers a steady paycheck, meaningful employment, food for their families, and an opportunity to strike back at those viewed as economic oppressors. In Syria many recruits join ISIS solely to topple the vicious Assad regime; liberated criminals find ISIS a convenient place to hide from their past. Palestinians are motivated by the dehumanization of living as disempowered second-class citizens in an apartheid state.

In Europe and America, where most of the recruits are young men who are educated and middle class, cultural isolation is factor number one in driving Muslims to extremism. Young, alienated Muslims are attracted by slick media that offer adventure and glory to their tedious and marginalized lives. German Muslims are motivated by adventure and alienation.

Long gone are the days of listening to boring and monotonous Osama bin Laden sermons. ISIS's highly-skilled recruiters use social media and personal contact (through the internet) to create personal and communal bonds of otherwise disaffected Muslims who are then enticed to leave their mundane and meaningless lives and fight together for a noble cause. That is, they are motivated by a sense of belonging and a quest for human significance.

One might think that dreams of afterlife virgins are especially conducive to violence. But as far as some greater good goes, just about any ideology will do. Indeed, non-religious ideologies in the 20th century caused vastly more suffering and death than all of the religiously-motivated violence in human history combined. Adolf Hitler's Germany killed more than 10,000,000 innocent people, while WWII saw the deaths of 60,000,000 people (with many more deaths attributable to war-related disease and famine). The purges and famines under Joseph Stalin's regime killed millions. Estimates of Mao Zedong's death toll range from 40,000,000-80,000,000. The current fashion of blaming religion ignores the staggering death toll of secular ideologies.

Once human beings feel like they belong to a group, they will do anything, even commit atrocities, for their brothers and sisters in the group. I have a friend who fought for the US in Iraq. He and his mates grew increasingly cynical of the US mission in Iraq. Although he was no longer ideologically committed to US goals, he told me that he would have done anything, even sacrificed his own life, for members of his group. This dynamic increases if one is able to disidentify with and dehumanize those who are not in one's group.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, who has spoken with more terrorists and their families than any Western scholar, concurs. In testimony to the US senate in 2010, he said, "What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world." Jihad, he said, is "thrilling, glorious and cool."

Oxford's Harvey Whitehouse directed an international team of distinguished scholars on the motivations of extreme self-sacrifice. They found that violent extremism isn't motivated by religion, it is motivated by  fusion with the group.

There is no psychological profile of today's terrorist. They are not crazy, they are often well-educated and many are relatively well off. They are motivated, like many young people, by a sense of belonging, a desire for an exciting and meaningful life, and devotion to a higher cause. Extremist ideology, while not a non-factor, is typically low on the list of motivations.