This is my defense of Islam (and Christianity for that matter). I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who suggested that religion produces extremism. This may be the case, but to no greater extent than any paradigm produces extremism.
Marx saw all history as reducible to class struggles. Many feminists see the world as simply the saga of gender roles. We all have that friend who has internalized the platitudes of a self-help book and with a knowing look, uses them to explain everything. Religions are not all that unique. Each paradigm is its own special history. Each one can engrain in your mind a certain paradigm that is reinforced over and over again because when you begin to suspect something, you begin to gather evidence that supports your suspicion in self-affirming habit called confirmation bias.
The moment you convince yourself that you’re being followed, you begin to notice the black car, the turned heads, and bowler hats. When you decide there are too many ambulances on the street, they grow in frequency. When you suspect that you are the subject of gossip, you see how your colleagues look away. You may very well be correct, or you may be reflecting your assumption onto the world around you.
If we accept that religions are not unique in the way they can produce monolithic and self-affirming views, we still must admit that the majority of the terrorist acts in the last ten years have indeed been committed by Muslims. But if Islam is not unique in its ability to be radicalized, why Islam?
We might suspect that the reason is because of some underlying weakness or propensity towards violence—a fundamental failure within the faith. But to do so would be to underestimate both the terrorists and Islam. A parasite seeks the strongest host—a host healthy enough to survive the operation. It does not seek the dead and picked-over remains or dried bones of the past. It seeks what is living and life sustaining.
Terrorists cling to Islam not because it is easily mutated, but because of its positive and sustaining abilities. In search of a potent symbol they are parasites that sustain themselves by the blood of much older and truer codes. It is perhaps telling how tenaciously the terrorists cling to Islam—too much. Islam is the only thing strong enough to keep them together, to give meaning to their cause, and make it understandable. And so while the Lions blood may indeed flow through the tick’s heart, the tick will never be the lion; and the terrorist will never be Islam.
And Islam is just the right sort of host the terrorists would have chosen. Just as it is perhaps predictable that a supremacy group would use the confederate flag, it is predictable that terrorism would build themselves around Islam—a faith that has forced us to question our assumptions for a thousand and one years.
The Muslim faith is likewise a ready-made symbol of divergence from the western world. The faith began as a rebellion against the materialism in Mecca and today it opposes similar consumerisms. Religiously, it is a sort of Christianity without a divine Christ. Socially, it contains vastly different codes and mores that do not fit well in our multicultural, humanist, relativist societies. It threatens the very heart of our own assumptions. It stands counter to us with swollen wrists from the shackles it wore during imperialism. In many ways it is our opposite, or can seem that way.
And so what other faith would a terrorist choose? Or to be fair, as most terrorists have indeed been born Muslim, what other tradition would a terrorist turn to? They will find all the potency and vitality they need ready made in Islam. It’s a large faith, a growing faith, a neglected faith—an old world we have mostly ignored. So while it is true that the vast majority of mainstream terrorism in the last ten years has been Muslims, I don’t believe it is because the Muslim faith tends towards violence. Rather, violent people tend towards Islam.
And it is not just violent people, but a certain kind of violent person. A person who finds themselves at odds with the western world. So it is worth considering the consequences of deepening the divide between the Muslims and ourselves if for no other reason than long-term self-preservation—for we may turn allies into enemies.