Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Murder and Religion

In the wake of the killings at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim, Arsaian Iftikhar has written a piece arguing that these murders were not a religious act.  I can't say either way whether Maj. Hasan was motivated by his religion to do what he did, because I haven't seen enough evidence for his particular case.  But Iftikhar tries to argue that all cases murder have no religion.  His main point is this:

Simply put; murder is murder and has no religion whatsoever.

If murder cannot be a religious act, then religion could not have been a significant motivation for the act.  Iftikhar completely fails to show that religion cannot be a motivator of murder, or even that it wasn't a motivator in Maj. Hasan's single case.

He starts off suggesting that the Quran forbids the taking of human life:

Most of the world's 1.57 billion Muslims know that the Holy Quran states quite clearly that, "Anyone who kills a human being ... it shall be as though he has killed all of mankind. ... If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he has saved the lives of all of mankind."

Cherry-picking verses from a holy book is something Christians are notorious for, but its equally useless for the Quran.  There are plenty of verses I could choose to paint a completely different picture.  In fact, the verse he cites (Sura 5:32), with the context he conveniently omitted, has a different interpretation:

Because of this, we decreed for the Children of Israel that anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people. Our messengers went to them with clear proofs and revelations, but most of them, after all this, are still transgressing.

And considering what counts as a "horrendous crime" (just take a look at the examples from the Skeptic's Annotated Quran for an idea), this does not prevent fundamentalist Muslims from killing most non-Muslims. 

But it doesn't even matter what the Quran actually says.  There are a significant number of Muslims who admittedly commit murder because they believe they will be rewarded in heaven, specifically because of their religion.  Most Muslims, however, believe that their religion forbids it.  Regardless of what the Quran actually says, you cannot claim that either group's motivations are something other than their religious beliefs.  Their beliefs are mutually incompatible, and yet both are motivated by primarily by them.   

Iftikhar is committing a No True Scotsman fallacy here.  Because his and many others' view of Islam is as a religion of peace, No TRUE Muslim could be motivated by their religion to commit murder. But of course, this making the definition of a Muslim include someone who holds this belief.  Iftikhar is assuming his conclusion in his argument, rather than proving it.

Iftikhar continues by criticizing the conservative media for playing up the fact that Maj. Hasan was a Muslim:

True to form, many conservative media pundits wasted little time in pointing to reports that Hasan had said "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is great") at the start of his murderous rampage. News coverage continuously showed the looping convenience store black-and-white videotape footage of Hasan wearing traditional white Islamic garb.

I agree with him here; the media's overplaying of Hasan's religion sends the message that being a Muslim is a warning sign, that we should be wary of anyone who practices Islam.  Its prejudicial, and the media should stick to the facts at hand, rather than focus on a specific character trait which may or may not have been a factor in the crime.  However, he goes on to say something that I can't imagine anyone would actually believe:

First of all, someone simply saying "Allahu Akbar" while committing an act of mass murder no more makes their criminal act "Islamic" than a Christian uttering the "Hail Mary" while murdering an abortion medical provider, or someone chanting "Onward, Christian Soldiers" while bombing a gay nightclub, would make their act "Christian" in nature.

This is bordering on absurd.  Is he really suggesting that bombing an abortion clinic or a gay nightclub isn't religiously motivated?  What other motivations for these actions are there?   Many Christians have made it very clear that their faith is the overwhelming reason behind their position against abortion and homosexuality.  Similarly, there is a venerable history of Muslims who have made it clear that it is a duty to kill infidels, and its quite possible that Maj. Hasan holds similar beliefs. 

I understand that a Muslim saying "Allahu Akbar" or a Christian saying "Hail Mary" is not necessarily proof that their crime was religiously motivated.  There are other explanations.  For example, perhaps a religious person would pray before committing a crime in order to ask forgiveness in advance, knowing his actions are wrong and not condoned by their faith.  But without other evidence, the most likely explanation is that faith motivated the actions.

Iftikhar then quotes Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan:

"One most certainly does insult Muslims by tying their religion to movements such as terrorism or fascism. Muslims perceive a double standard in this regard: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols would never be called 'Christian terrorists' even though they were in close contact with the Christian Identity Movement. No one would speak of Christo-fascism or Judeo-fascism as the Republican[s] ... speak of Islam-o-fascism. ... [Many people also] point out that [it was] persons of Christian heritage [who] invented fascism, not Muslims."

I absolutely agree that there is double-standard in this country.  We are willing to call Muslim extremists "terrorists", while we shy away from the word when it appears that a Christian's religious ideals motivated their crime.   There absolutely are Christo-fascist groups of people in the U.S., and more should be done to point out the fact that their beliefs are chiefly motivated by their religion.

But the point is not that either all terrorists are motivated by religion or none of them are.  The fact is there are a variety of reasons why people commit heinous crimes.  That does not mean we should shy away from the fact that some use religion as a justification for them.  It doesn't matter who invented fascism and what religion they were.  Each fascist group has their own motivations, some religious, some not.  Our euphemistic language designed to shy away from blaming religion is harmful, because it makes us less able to combat extremism effectively.

Iftikhar goes on to make a suggestion to the U.S. military:

Thus, with thousands of patriotic American Muslim women and men proudly serving in our United States Army in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps it would behoove our army leaders to consider sending a strong message of American unity by appointing an American Muslim to be a part of the prosecution team against Hasan.
This would help show that the mass murders allegedly committed by Hasan have nothing to do with the teachings of our religion.

It would show nothing of the sort.  It would show that, just as in every other religion, there are good and bad.  There are those who have religious faith and act morally and justly, and others who use it to justify atrocities.  In Islam, and other religions, the majority of believers fall into the first category.  But we must not deny that the second does exist, and is significant.  Pretending that religion does not motivate these people is denying the real problem, and will hurt everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike.


  1. If a mentally unstable person shoots people and claims "Santa made me do it"---no matter how fervently he might believe it---one should not jump to the conclusion that all Santa believing people are prone to shootings or that Santa himself condones/advocates shooting people. The "truth" is simply that a mentally unstable person believes "Santa made him do it"---nothing more and nothing less.

    The human mind will justify anything---wether it uses religion, ideology, science or spin. And both the sane and insane mind will try to "justify". One only needs to look at some "justifications" offered by serial killers.

    The real situation here is that there are serious mental health problems in the U.S. forces stemming from the prolonged wars. The L.A. Times said that there were two incidents of soldiers killing others in a base in Iraq ---in one, an army sergeant killed 2 superiors and in another an army sergeant opened fire killing 5. There were 140 (known) suicides of U.S. soldiers last year and the number has already reached 134 by Oct this year. Islam-bashing is a popular fad. Don't get sucked into it.

  2. @kat:

    "Islam-bashing is a popular fad. Don't get sucked into it."

    I hope I didn't present my argument this way. This argument holds just as equally for Christian fundamentalists, or any other religious group, as it does for Islam. Ifkithar was specifically talking about an instance in which Islam was the religion, so I centered my argument there, but I could have easily pointed out instances where Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, was the prime motivator for crimes. I already said that there is a double-standard in the media when it comes to Islam, and I don't agree with it at all. But that doesn't mean when Islam is presented as a religion of peace, which it obviously isn't, we should just keep our mouths shut. I think all religious extremism are harmful, and they should all be opposed.

    As far as being mentally unstable, that's a distinct possibility in Maj. Hasan's case, but I don't have the evidence as of yet to decide one way or the other. For the more general case that Ifkithar presents, I'm not convinced that all religiously-based murders are committed by the mentally unstable. If you truly believe everything in the Bible or Quran, it is perfectly reasonable to come away with the belief that non-believers must be punished by any means necessary. The base belief system is erroneous, but once you hold it, its perfectly justifiable. Therefore, without other evidence, I don't believe that Osama bin Laden, for example, is necessarily crazy. He's incredibly devout and happens to interpret his holy book in viscously hateful ways, but that's not enough evidence to suggest mental instability, unless you are willing to hold that all fundamentalists are unstable. That's possible, but it still doesn't change the fact that religion is the motivating factor for these crimes, and if the religious ideals were taken away, their justification is also gone.

  3. "If you take away religious ideals"....I don't think "justification" is confined to religion--also, if the main cause is mental instability, then attributing "religion"/Science/ideology or any other "justification" as the main cause would be incorrect.
    However, one does not have to be insane to use "justification" ---for example the U.S. used the "justification" that "it ended the war" when they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to smithereens---and caused future generations to suffer the horrors of cancers and luekemia caused by radiation. It used "justification"---we are bringing democracy----when it brought the horrors of war and voilence to Iraq---traumatizing children and displacing hundreds of Iraqi's not to mention the immense "collateral damage" to innocent civilians.---should we then conclude that America and Americans is/are "inherently evil"?----I would think that would be a little ridiculous. The fact is that the human mind ---sane or insane---will find "justification"---it is simply built that way. ---they may use the Torah, the Bible, Quran or Science or any other ideology---but it does not necessarily make it wrong/erroneous in its entirety.
    As to "non-believers must be punished by any means".....Maybe the Bible says so...the Quran does NOT. It advocates living in peace with all human beings as only God can judge who is a "believer" and who is not. Those verses that talk of fighting are in the context of defensive war --when one is attacked by another---and even then, warn people not to "transgress limits"---to end war as soon as possible and to bring peace. ---rather than dismiss the Quran--fighting Al-Qaeda with the Quran itself might be a smarter idea....? On the other hand if the main cause of Al-Qaeda is actually political and it is using the Quran as "justification" then it would be better to confront/cure the main cause rather than focus on the "justification"......

  4. Forgot to add---I agree with you that all extremism must be opposed----that is why there is freedom of speech ---right?

  5. I'd just like to point out Ibn Warraq's statment about this from CFI:

    Found here

    He's certainly more knowledgeable than me on the specifics of Islamic faith and extremism.


    I never said that religion is wrong BECAUSE people use it to justify these horrible actions. I didn't address them here, but I have many reasons why I don't believe any particular religion is true (at least those which I have been presented with thus far). The point is people use them to justify their actions, whether it is true of false. If its false (I believe it is) then this justfication is without merit, ans we should say so.

    I also never claimed that religion is the only motivator for murder, terrorism, etc. I'm not sure how America's actions during WWII are relevant. Perhaps I missed the point of that part of your comment.

    Again, it doesn't even matter what is actually in the Quran. A significant number of Muslims base their beliefs about punishing infidels on their religion, and they don't even make an effort to hide this. I'm certainly not claiming that all, or even most, Muslims feel this way, but it does exist, and is significant.