Bureaucrat Hermes and the Islamic State

It’s been interesting to see the reaction of thoughtful atheists to the recent shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill. According to reports, the suspect was an anti-religion zealot and an admirer of the strident gang known as the “New Atheists”: Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and especially Richard Dawkins. Bill Maher is also in the club, at least as an honorary member. The New Atheists have it in for all religions, seeing them all as varying degrees of corrupting and violent. But they are notable for disliking Islam more than other religions, usually on the ground that “Islam,” whatever that is, is somehow more violent than other belief systems.

Dawkins took to Twitter shortly after the shooting to indirectly absolve himself of any responsibility, as Dave Lartigue has documented here. First he characterized it as a “parking dispute in NRA-land.” Then he declared the shooter “unhinged.” Finally, of course, he got back on message:

Alas, criminal individual killers exist. But there’s only 1 ideology now that preaches the legal killing of dissenters. And it isn’t atheism.

Lartigue smartly refuses to let Dawkins off the hook, noting that you don’t have to directly “preach killing” to give certain people moral license to do it:

Atheism, including his brand of it, isn’t to blame, says Dawkins. After all, it doesn’t preach the “legal killing” of dissenters. Merely that its dissenters — some more than others — are vicious enemies who can’t be trusted or reasoned with. Where’s the harm in that?

Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson, too, had thoughtful things to say about the ways that atheism is not immune to the siren call of out-group villainizing:

On the one hand, it is easy to say that this appears to be about a parking spot only, with nothing to do with religion or race. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive someone to murder three people over something so stupid, unless the murderer for some reason did not see his victims as full humans deserving of the right to life. And if you have paid any attention to the current state of capital-A-Atheism, you would have to see the growing problem with the continued dehumanization of Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups by community leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, the organizations that support them with awards and speaking engagements, and the mass of young and angry atheists on sites like Reddit.


Graeme Wood’s cover story in The Atlantic, about the barbaric interpretation of Islam driving the actions of terror-group/bogeyman-of-the-year ISIS, is in many ways a thoughtful and useful piece. But it is also a great gift to both ISIS and the Dawkins/Harris strain of atheism. It’s a great gift to ISIS because, intentionally or not, it paints ISIS’s ideology as being, basically, a purer, more honest version of the fundamentals of Islam:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail . . . .

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition . . . .”

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous . . . . He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance . . . .

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

This idea — that ISIS is actually somehow more “authentic” than the vast billion-plus pool of people who disagree with them and endeavor to leave behind the brutality of the past, and that the Muslim majority and its allies have a “cotton-candy” view of what “Islam” is — runs through Wood’s piece as a constant thread and, as I said, it works to ISIS’s advantage in two ways.

First, of course, it echoes ISIS’s claims about itself, which could encourage disaffected young Muslims (or non-Muslims looking for an identity) to see the Islamic State’s barbarism as a path to some more authentic life. But far more importantly, it verifies the essentially evil and violent nature of “Islam” for people who want to go to war in the Middle East. (If you don’t believe me, scroll through the comments on Wood’s article.)

And that is exactly the conflict ISIS is looking for, as Wood’s article also explains:

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need . . . . These include the belief . . . that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam . . . .

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse . . . .

Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago. Other Islamic State sources suggest that Rome might mean any infidel army, and the Americans will do nicely.

Now, one might say, “So what? ISIS is a death cult — let’s bring them death!” But there’s a lot to consider there. One is that it wouldn’t be ISIS alone that would feel the impact of a battle in Dabiq — locals who are already terrorized would be the first to die, almost certainly, as human shields/involuntary martyrs. The second thing to consider is the cost to America in lives and treasure, for dubious ends. The third thing to consider is what happens after — the very thing we did not consider in our previous invasion of Iraq, which led to the power struggle that ultimately created the space for ISIS. And the fourth thing to consider is that by attacking ISIS, we validate and elevate it, especially among people who already don’t like the United States’ previous adventures in the Middle East.

So there’s all that. But it’s a seductive narrative, isn’t it? Righteous America can set itself in opposition to “Islam” (which, we now know, is violent and evil in its “authentic” form, never mind all those inauthentic “modern” Muslims), secure in the feeling that its (insert “Christian” or “secular” here, depending on which house of the warmongering tribe you belong to) ideology is “peaceful” and therefore morally superior. (Never mind that in recent decades America has killed or caused to be killed, for highly dubious reasons, many millions of people. Our ideology is not “evil,” so what does it matter what the actual effects are?)

Even if you’re not a warmonger, however, it’s pretty pleasing to be able to elevate yourself by comparison to something awful. And, of course, it’s more pleasing to be able to elevate yourself above a billion or more people than it is to elevate yourself above a tiny, fringe guerrilla army. Nobody bothers to say, “my beliefs and morals are better than those of Joseph Kony.” No — if you really want to make yourself feel good about how great you are in comparison to other people, you need a really big target. And so Wood’s piece, though smart and nuanced, plays into the hand of Dawkins, Harris, et al., who want nothing more than to call “Islam” one big, monolithic thing, composed of concentrated evil.


I’m not willing to call ISIS a more “authentic” Islam, for a number of reasons — one being that the early practice of Islam was, on the whole, a progressive thing. It was probably a mixed bag, but, like that of Judaism before it, Islamic doctrine and to greater and lesser degrees practice appears to have made slavery less terrible. It also limited polygamy, outlawed human sacrifice, and made charity mandatory. And, of course, medieval Islamic nations nurtured science and philosophy and were often comparatively tolerant and pragmatically pluralistic, at least as to other monotheistic religions. One should be careful, of course, to note that this was not, historically, a modern secular progressivism. But it was, for many people, an improvement on what had been available or was available in other places.

So one way of conceiving of “Islam” is as a (putatively God-guided) process of moving forward out of darkness and barbarity — and therefore as something that might evolve over time as humans themselves change. Of course, that requires thinking about the purpose or animating spirit of ancient laws rather than their letter, and being willing to adapt certain broad purposes — economic justice, social cohesion, reduction of suffering — to modern circumstances. And let us be clear — such flexibility is frightening. There’s less to grab onto, it makes the future less certain, and it makes it much, much harder to be technically correct.


You are technically correct -- the best kind of correct.

The Futurama episode that gif memorializes pokes gentle fun at government bureaucrats who elevate the correct use of forms, regulations, and procedures over humane instincts. Hermes wins the grudging admiration of the chief bureaucrat by demonstrating his technically-correct knowledge of small, unimportant details of procedure.

Of course, in real life, calling someone’s position “technically correct” is denigrating, because it suggests that they’ve focused on some piece of minutiae at the cost of missing the larger picture. But for a certain kind of mind, being “technically correct” is deeply comforting. For one thing, it means one cannot be wrong, and being wrong is psychologically very distressing. For another thing, it allows one to construct reasonable-seeming arguments that confound others, even though those arguments are patently wrong-headed.

As this fascinating article on trolling notes, for example, world-class trolling tends to involve an argument made up almost entirely of technically correct statements:

[H]ere’s an example of a strategy a Troll once described: you take a sensitive topic (like the ban on minarets or the latest problem with Macintosh OS), and you build an argument around it. The conclusion of your argument is blatantly absurd, but every premise is correct, except one. The trick is to hide that wrong premise under an intricate discussion. You know that people will be so hasty to resist your conclusion that they will start by attacking the true premises. You have prepared a violent rebuttal for each objection, and you know that, since you are right on those points, some objective debaters might side with you, which will divide the discussion group (a crucial step). You hope that the discussion of your true premises will become so heated that, when someone finally notices the flaw in your argument, people will be too busy insulting you to care about that.

ISIS and other puritans excel at this kind of trolling within their own religious traditions. They have a scriptural quote for everything, and they dance nimbly among them, concealing their false premises and sheer awful inhumanity in a weltering downpour of technically correct statements about the Quran and the Hadith (or, in the American Christian variant, about Leviticus and the New Testament letters). They lure in even otherwise kindly and humane members of their respective religions by being ruthlessly consistent with certain factual premises that they hammer home as the key premises. Bury people in enough leaves, and they will never question whether you have even constructed a reasonable tree — let alone actually perceived the forest.

Constitutional textualism is, often, another variant of the same thing. Thus, for example, Justice Thomas can say with a straight face that the conditions of a particular prison can never constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” because “judges or juries–but not jailers–impose ‘punishment.’ ” As a matter of technical correctness, it’s impeccable: under our constitutional scheme, only judges and juries can sentence people to be punished. Jailers, not judges or juries, determine the conditions of confinement. If the “punishment” to which one is sentenced is “five years in prison,” then, the Constitution must be absolutely blind to whether those five years are served in a minimum-security “country club” or something akin to Andersonville, because the judge or jury had nothing to do with creating the conditions. It’s magical in its technically correct elegance and, of course, utterly absurd.


Richard Dawkins is a master of technically correct trolling. Here’s a great one, a nasty little tweet he threw out as Muslims were celebrating Eid a couple of years ago:

All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

It’s ingenious. Start with a true statement. Draw no conclusions — leave that for the reader! End on a backhanded “compliment.” Masterful.

It’s also utterly fatuous, of course. As Nesrine Malik points out in the linked article,

[Y]es, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of “Muslims”, and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world’s Chinese, all the world’s Indians, all the world’s lefthanded people, all the world’s cyclists.

I did try it, with Chinese people, on the theory that there are almost as many ethnic/national Chinese in the world as there are Muslims. Even under the broadest possible definition of “Chinese,” it comes out to 15 laureates. (That is, however, more laureates than have been associated with UC Santa Barbara, which just goes to show that careful selection of your technically correct facts is important when trolling.)

In one of his more famous bits of trollery, Dawkins lays on the technically correct facts with a trowel, writing an ersatz letter to a fictional “Muslima” in order to be nasty to a woman who asked men not to hit on her late at night in elevators:

Dear Muslima,

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

This is, of course, more of the same — lardering the first few sentences with true facts about the suffering of some Muslim women in order to hide the non sequitur of suggesting that American atheist women have nothing to complain about.

Dawkins frequently takes to Twitter to assert technically correct things in the same trolly fashion. When called on it, he defends with some variant of the following:

Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive. Other examples where facts should be hidden because offensive?

Apart from the problem of mistaking the issue as one of “offense,” discussed previously here, Dawkins is playing the classic troll’s game, as Isaac Chotiner points out:

Suppose I were to tweet out, “There are a lot of greedy Jews in the world,” or “There are a lot of black criminals in the world.” Both are mere statements of fact (or FACT); every race and religion has lots of greedy people and criminals. But surely Dawkins is not too obtuse to understand that merely tweeting these nuggets is indeed offensive. Intent and context matter.


Other times, Dawkins carefully omits actual reference to Islam — all the better to avoid being wrong. There’s this one, noted above:

Alas, criminal individual killers exist. But there’s only 1 ideology now that preaches the legal killing of dissenters. And it isn’t atheism.

This sort of vagueness is, of course, just a technique for remaining “technically correct” by subtraction — or, as it’s more commonly known, moving the goalposts. If, for example, someone points out that these Muslims don’t seem to be “preaching the legal killing of dissenters,” Dawkins and/or his supporters will point out to you that he didn’t say the “1 ideology” was all of Islam — perhaps he meant “Islamism” or “radical Islam.” Thus one can have one’s digs at Islam and then retreat to a safe, technically correct corner.

(To be fair, this tweet is so coyly non-specific that it might not refer to Islam at all! Perhaps he was speaking of the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai. According to a Pew study on religious violence, “[T]he managing council of the government-recognized Cao Dai religion . . . orchestrated an assault on followers of an unsanctioned Cao Dai group in September 2012, injuring six. The head of the Cao Dai managing council said the reason for the assault was that the followers of the unsanctioned group were not worshipping according to the dictates of the council.” One eagerly awaits Dawkins’ clarification.)

Similarly, by not defining his terms in this tweet:

No, all religions are NOT equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t.

Dawkins immunizes himself from any possible counterargument. The tweet states no facts or truths of any kind and raises numerous questions Dawkins hasn’t the slightest interest in answering: How does “a religion” engage in or “give up” violence? What are our metrics? What are our timeframes? Is it reasonable to look at sheer numbers killed by adherents of a religion — in which case, in the last two centuries, Islam is indisputably less violent than Christianity? Do we have to confine ourselves only to declared religious warriors like ISIS — and various Buddhist and Hindu and Christian terror organizations — or can we admit that nominally secular soldiers also engage in holy war? Conversely, how much should we discount the “religious” nature of violence perpetrated by groups like Hamas, whose members and supporters are animated at least as much by local politics (and wrenching poverty) as by theology?

Dawkins — at least Twitter Dawkins — can’t possibly be wrong, because his words are so vague as to lack meaning altogether. Technically correct, because unfalsifiable. His words lead his readers to no new information; at best, they allow some readers to congratulate themselves for opinions they already hold, and at worst they generate a lot of internet conflict and anger while yielding very little in the way of enlightenment.


It would, of course, be hideously wrong to say that Richard Dawkins and the leaders of ISIS are engaging in the same thing. ISIS is torturing and murdering people. Dawkins is engaging in parlor sophistry, albeit on a grand scale. But that sophistry has consequences — both on the small scale, to the degree that people like the Chapel Hill shooter and Anders Breivik become confirmed in their anti-Islamic rage, and on the large scale, when anti-Islamic fervor drives an interest in war. These are real things, with real costs to real human beings. Dawkins is just one voice, of course, and even the New Atheist movement as a whole is only part of the anti-Islam trend, which is probably driven more by Christian bigotry — and the theology of certain Christians, too. Still, thoughtful atheists react to these developments with self-reflection and a desire to do better, not a defensive posture that denies the possibility of one’s words having any effect on others.


Buried in the Atlantic piece is a useful quote from Bernard Haykel, Wood’s primary source on ISIS’s theology:

“People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State.

Quite right. “Islam” is not, properly speaking, a thing, or even a coherent idea. Like “democracy” or “socialism,” it is better understood as a cluster of related ideas that result, on the ground, in quite different sets of practices. What happens when Richard Dawkins describes Islam (however coyly) as “1 ideology,” or Sam Harris claims to be able to speak to the “fundamentals of Islam,” is a complete papering-over of the extraordinary breadth of opinion that falls under the name “Islam.” To say that there is one Islam is to say that Iran would have been no different under Mossadegh than under Khomeini. Or, alternatively, it is to say that Mossadegh — and Malala Yousufzai, and Saba Ahmed, and Qasim Rashid, and Ahsan Zahid, and Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha — are not really practicing Islam or holding Islamic ideas. As though Muslims do not, every day, argue against the acts of ISIS and other evils in the Muslim world from Islamic texts and traditions.

“Islam” is not one thing. Contained under that umbrella are good ideas and bad ideas. Atheists, of course, are convinced that there is one very wrong idea at the core of Islam and most other religions, too — the idea of a divine authority. But the fact that Muslims are (in our view) wrong on one issue should not make us sloppy in our analysis of what “Islam” — in all its multifarious profusion — has to say on hundreds of other issues. Saying that it is one thing, with one meaning, is playing into the hands of those who love to be technically correct — and hate human beings. And ISIS is bad enough without our adopting their habits of thought.

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One Response to Bureaucrat Hermes and the Islamic State

  1. Pingback: are we missing the story of the century? | The Handsome Camel

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