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Tsarnaev In Cloud-Cuckoo Land

From The New York Times:

Elmirza Khozhugov, 26, the ex-husband of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s younger sister, Ailina, said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been enamored of conspiracy theories, and that he was also concerned by the wars in the Middle East.

“He was looking for connections between the wars in the Middle East and oppression of Muslim population around the globe,” Mr. Khozhugov said in an e-mail. “It was very hard to argue with him on themes somehow connected to religion. On the other hand, he did not hate Christians. He respected their faith. Never said anything bad about other religions. But he was angry that the world pictures Islam as a violent religion.”

Naturally, he blew the legs and arms off of hundreds of people, injured hundreds, and killed three innocents, including an eight-year-old boy, to show people that his was a religion of peace. Got it.

Look, if all Muslims, or even most Muslims, were Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the world would look a lot different, and be far bloodier. They aren’t, and it doesn’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is, in the world today, a not-insignificant number of Muslims who believe what Tsarnaev believed, and who are prepared to act on it. They are not exactly turned away from his Boston mosque, either. From USA Today:

The mosque attended by the two brothers accused in the Boston Marathon double bombing has been associated with other terrorism suspects, has invited radical speakers to a sister mosque in Boston and is affiliated with a Muslim group that critics say nurses grievances that can lead to extremism.

Several people who attended the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Mass., have been investigated for Islamic terrorism, including a conviction of the mosque’s first president, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, in connection with an assassination plot against a Saudi prince.

Its sister mosque in Boston, known as the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has invited guests who have defended terrorism suspects. A former trustee appears in a series of videos in which he advocates treating gays as criminals, says husbands should sometimes beat their wives and calls on Allah (God) to kill Zionists and Jews, according to Americans for Peace and Tolerance, an interfaith group that has investigated the mosques.

The head of the group is among critics who say the two mosques teach a brand of Islamic thought that encourages grievances against the West, distrust of law enforcement and opposition to Western forms of government, dress and social values.

“We don’t know where these boys were radicalized, but this mosque has a curriculum that radicalizes people. Other people have been radicalized there,” said the head of the group, Charles Jacobs.

It is more important for many Americans to shame people into averting their eyes from the role American mosques may — may — play in radicalizing Muslims than into looking squarely at what gets said in those mosques. This is an old, old game. When I was at The Dallas Morning News, we had local Muslim leaders constantly harping on the “Islamophobia” in my columns, because I asked hard and legitimate questions about the radicalism taught at the local mosques, and the connections local Muslim organizations had with radicals. Their idea was that to ask the questions was to reveal yourself as an anti-Muslim bigot. The leader of this group admitted to me and fellow journalists that he believed men had the right to beat their wives, and that homosexuals and adulteresses ought to be killed, because that’s what sharia prescribes.

But if you found that objectionable, you found yourself denounced as a bigot. It happened to me all the time. You’d be surprised by how effective that tactic is, though. Or maybe you wouldn’t be.

Sufis are not Wahhabis, and not all Sunnis are Wahhabis. But the militant Sunnis associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and funded largely by the Saudis, have massive dominance over the teaching and propagation of Islam in the United States. Read Husain Haqqani, a prominent Muslim academic (and a former Islamic radical himself), on how this happened.  This is a problem. It has long been a problem, and one that the US media, and the US government, are unwilling to face. Part of the campaign, often unwitting and well meaning, to obscure a clear view of these radical organizations and their influence is to turn almost any objection to Islam and Islamism (note the distinction) as a set of ideas that influence conduct into an expression of prejudice.

But this is silly. Consider: is it really anti-Semitic to explore the ideology behind the radical settler movement in Israel and the West Bank, and to look into its theological roots in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible? The settlers are by and large religious Jews who draw much of their fervor and their justification for their settlement from their reading of Hebrew history, and God’s promise to the Jewish people. Not all Jews believe as the settlers do, of course, but if you want to understand why the settlers are doing what they’re doing, you can’t separate religion out. It’s not a total explanation, but it’s part of the explanation.

Do you want to understand the Holocaust? Part of the explanation lies in Christian anti-Semitism. It’s not the whole explanation, or even the greater part of the explanation. But even though it may hurt the feelings of some Christians, this must be confronted.

I don’t see why Muslims should be spared the same questions when it comes to Muslims committing atrocities in the name of their religion, and according to a particular understanding of their religion which may not be universal within the Islamic community, but which is supported by more than a tiny fringe.

Noah Millman says Andrew Sullivan and I are wrong to point to the religious roots of the Tsarnaev’s rage, at least in the way that we’re doing (e.g., by saying that Islamic scripture and tradition is a lot more prescriptive of violence than Christianity, and therefore more easily lends itself to the instrumental uses of the violent). I want to focus on this claim:

Dreher and Sullivan alike are Christians. I’m not. They assume that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” means that Christianity has acted as a historic brake on violence. As a Jew, I have to question that assumption. After all, the number of Christian countries in history that have been governed according to principles of non-violence is exactly zero. Someone from a religious tradition whose founding texts articulated rules about when violence is justified or permitted might look at the long history of Christian violence – not just violence by Christians, but violence undertaken with the Church’s encouragement and undertaken in the name of Jesus – and say: gee, maybe saying “turn the other cheek” backfires, makes all violence seem equally sinful, and therefore opens the gate to truly horrific behavior?

Where to start? I can’t speak for Andrew, of course, but I would never claim that Christendom has been a utopia of peace and love. Anybody with even a passing historical awareness knows that Christians have, over the centuries, acted with great bloody-mindedness, against non-Christians and against each other. Violence is inherent in the human condition. At best we can hope to restrain it or channel it, but we will always have it with us. The instinct to violence, like the instinct to sin, is only overcome with enormous and sustained effort. Human nature resists the call to peaceability, to forgiveness, to forswearing vengeance. In fact, many cultures — the ancient Greeks, for one — found warfare to be not a sometimes-necessary evil (as Christian tradition would define it), but as a stage for man’s glory. This is why Nietzsche despised Christianity: he called it a religion of slaves, or the weak, because it extolled the humble and the powerless.

The ideas at the heart of the Christian religion have been at best imperfectly realized in our world, and can never be fully realized, given human nature, and our finitude. The point is not that Christianity makes men into angels; the point is that by following the teachings of Jesus Christ, one becomes a more compassionate and peaceful person than one is likely to have been otherwise. To be a Christian and kill your neighbor because he has become an apostate from Christianity is to violate Christ’s teachings — even if it is done with the approval of Christian authorities, as was done in the past. You cannot find warrant in the New Testament, or in the spirit of Christ’s teachings, for murdering apostates. You can find this in the Quran and the hadith, though there are conflicting interpretations in various schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Did Christians murder Jews in the past, with the explicit approval of Church authorities, or at least their implicit approval? Yes, they — we — did. It is impossible for me to see in Scripture or Tradition a justification for this; anti-Semitism is a terrible sin for which we Christians ought to repent, and to guard against. But as historians rightly remind us, Christian anti-Semitism had grave historical consequences; ideas tend to do that. Similarly, on a far smaller scale — but stay with me, I’m trying to illustrate a point — what are we to make of a rabbi — Jesus of Nazareth — who confronted a mob of the righteous who was planning to stone an adulteress, but who stopped them by confronting them with their own sinfulness, even as he told the adulteress that she was in sin, and commanded her to repent? That is an extraordinary thing, a revolutionary thing. This is how the new religion of Christianity appeared within the Greco-Roman world: as deliverance from oppression for slaves, women, and the poor, and an overturning of the old values.

It would be nonsense to argue that Christianity eliminated violence, cruelty, or prejudice. But it would be foolish to argue that the Christian revolution in values didn’t have tremendous effects on what the societies who absorbed Christianity believed, and how they behaved. We can’t know for sure what would have happened to them had they never heard of Christianity, and in any case Christianity, like Islam, is a creed and an ethos that is lived out by flawed human beings, not angels. It always gets bent through the prism of our brokenness. The cause of Christianity has been allied to the cause of power — state power and otherwise — and thus deformed. But Christianity will always be deformed, because Christians are human beings, and human beings are not angels. Nevertheless, I think we are better off living in a world in which Christian values — especially Christianity’s teachings about the dignity of the human person, and our responsibility to the poorest and weakest among us — are central than any alternative on offer. Besides, Christian power has at times been used to restrain violence. As David Bentley Hart writes in Atheist Delusions:

Every age, obviously, has known wars and rumors of wars, and cruelty, injustice, oppression, murderous zeal, and murderous indifference; and men will obviously kill for any cause or for none. But, for the sheer scale of its violences, the modern period is quite unsurpassed. The Thirty Years’ War, with its appalling toll of civilian causalities, was a scandal to the consciences of the nations of Europe; but midway through the twentieth century, Western society had become so inured to the idea of war as a total conflict between one entire people and another that even liberal democracies did not scruple to bomb open cities from the air, or to use incendiary or nuclear devices to incinerate tens of thousands of civilians, sometimes for only the vagues of military objectives. Perhaps this is the price of “progress” or “liberation.” From the late tenth through the mid-eleventh centuries, various church synods in France had instituted the convention called the “Peace Of God,” which used the threat of excommunication to prevent private wars and attacks upon women, peasants, merchants, clergy, and other noncombatants, and which required every house, high and low, to pledge itself to preserving the peace. Other synods, over the course of the eleventh century, instituted the “Truce of God,” which forbade armed aggression on so many days of the year — penitential periods, feasts, fasts, harvests, from Wednesday evening to Monday morning, and so on — that ultimately more than three-quarters of the calendar consisted in periods of mandatory tranquility; in the twelfth century, the Truce’s prohibitions became fixed in civil law. The reason such conventions could actually serve (even partially) to limit aggression is that they proceeded from a spiritual authority that no baptized person, however powerful or rapacious, could entirely ignore.

Of course it all fell apart. Everything human eventually does. As Hart writes elsewhere in the book, periods of religiously-associated violence often accompany the decay of political and social order. People get scared. People are weak. People are violent.

I’ve been working on this post for a couple of hours now, and keep getting pulled away to do various things, so I’m going to finish it, and not polish it, because I’ll be here all afternoon if so. I just want to say that I’m not interested in getting in a tit-for-tat over which religion’s followers have committed more atrocities, Islam’s or Christianity’s. Both religions have a shameful historical record on this count. I maintain that it’s true to say there are fewer theological resources within Islam to counter violence committed in the name of Islam than within Christianity, and that this distinction is intrinsic to both Islam and Christianity. It is perfectly fair (and even necessary) to criticize Christians for failing to live up to the teachings of our faith. But I think we Christians have more to work with in that the founder of our faith showed mercy to the adulteress (John, Chapter 8), driving away the righteous men who tried to kill her by stoning, versus this hadith in which the Prophet dealt with an adulteress in his way:

A woman from Juhaynah came to Allah’s Messenger (saws) and she had become pregnant because of adultery. She said: ‘O Messenger of Allah (saws), I have done something for which (prescribed punishment) must be imposed upon me, so impose that.’  Allah’s Messenger (saws) called her guardian and said: ‘Treat her well, and when she gives birth bring her to me.’ He did accordingly. Then Allah’s Messenger (saws) pronounced judgment on her. Her clothes were tied around her and then he gave the order and she was stoned to death. He then prayed over her (dead body).  Thereupon Hadrat Umar (r.a.) said to him (saws): ‘O Messenger of Allah (saws), you offer prayer for her although she had committed adultery!’  Thereupon he (saws) said: ‘She has made such a repentance that if it were to be divided among seventy men of Medina, it would be enough! Have you found any repentance better than that she sacrificed her life for Allah, the Majestic?’

Maybe Islam is true. Maybe, as I believe, Christianity is true. Maybe neither is true. But I would rather live in a world informed by the moral embedded within the Christian story than one within the Islamic story. And so would you. Anyway, women have been badly done over the centuries by male believers within both religions, but which of these two religions offers more resources with which to oppose violence against women? Doesn’t make one more true than the other, but I’m not asking about truth, I’m asking a sociological question.

Incidentally, Noah is right to say that it’s not quite, um, kosher for non-Muslims to tell Muslims how to interpret their own religion. But it seems to me perfectly reasonable for non-Muslims, when confronted by Muslims who believe in an interpretation of  their religion that compels them to commit violence against non-Muslims, to respond by making it hard for them to live among us in peace and respect. We non-Muslims have little or no influence over how world Islam (or rather, world Islams, because there is not just one kind of Islam) understands itself, but we do have a lot more control over what kind of Islam we find socially acceptable in our own country. Mosques that tolerate or encourage Salafists and their fellow travelers do not deserve normalization.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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