The Islam Dichotomy, Part 1: Terrorism

I’d like to see you weigh in on the Muslims are evil and scary vs. Muslims are no worse than Christians and demonizing them only helps Christians battle that occasionally flares up in the skeptical blogosphere.

Is Islam a religion of peace or of leaving people in pieces via acts of terrorism?

This question seems to be everywhere now. Between the neocon stance of “Deport all of the Muslims!” (or worse) and the committed relativists’ cries for unwavering “tolerance,” what’s a skeptic to think?

The fear of Islam in the West generally means the fear of terrorism and of the implementation of Sharia (whose penal code includes the recommendation of limb amputation for theft).

The fear of terrorism is mostly directed at non-Western Muslims. Many non-Western Muslims have no great love for the United States. Asian Muslims can point to the fact that the U.S. supports corrupt military dictatorships in Pakistan, armed and trained the very Taliban that ended up terrorizing Afganistan, and utterly ignores (along with the rest of the world, admittedly) the ethnic cleansing of Chinese Muslims. Arab Muslims can cite Iraq as well as the strong American support, at the very least economic, of Israel. In fact, most Muslims, regardless of nationality, anger at the thought of the American role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. An extreme dislike, or even hatred, of American actions doesn’t necessarily translate to terrorism, of course — and doesn’t, for the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims.

The fear of “home-grown terrorism” in the United States is a mostly unjustified one, as shown by a RAND Corporation study. In fact, the study also points out that the overwhelming majority of acts of terrorism on American soil are not committed by Muslims at all.

Individual Americans are not the only ones to generalize about Muslims. Studies that show that American Muslims are not very likely to support terrorism did not stop the FBI from targeting the mosque in my hometown. They planted a mole who posed as a convert who then attempted to incite the Muslims there to violence. The mosque members’ immediate reaction was to get a restraining order and then call the man’s very employer to report a terrorist threat.

courtesy of Eddie Codel (ekai on Flickr)

Two years before the incident, the FBI had promised the mosque that there would be no secret monitoring; the debacle shook the trust of a community that was, from the get-go, completely open to working with the FBI, losing active allies in the fight against terror. In addition, converts to Islam are now met with suspicion by the mosque community.

The clincher? The mosque is often sneered at by more conservative Southern California Muslims for being “too modernist.”

Main image is of Indian Muslims protesting (via). Thanks to Daniel Rudolph for making the topic suggestion via Facebook.

Please note that I use the term “West” to mean the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and any nation in Western Europe, and the term “Westerner” to mean anyone who lives in and identifies with those countries. I understand that using the terms in this way is problematic, but there exists no other commonly-understood term of which I am aware that would be an appropriate substitute.

The Islam Dichotomy, Part 1: Terrorism

28 thoughts on “The Islam Dichotomy, Part 1: Terrorism

  1. 2

    I would say that there are an enormous number of confounding variables, cultural, geographical, economic and otherwise that make it difficult to answer the question of whether the Islamic religion is predisposed to creating violence. I will say, however, that Islam was created by a military leader often in the midst of an active military campaign. It is reasonable that this would impact the dogma and the Qur’an.

  2. 3

    “Is Islam a religion of peace or of leaving people in pieces?”: answer, as with most religions, it “both”.

    Most muslims are peaceful and law-abiding. Most *people* don’t want violence, and are far more interested in making a living and raising their kids than in blowing up other people. But religion has within it a “our side – your side” dichotomy that will necessarily lead to violence from time to time, and Islam, just like Christianity, does nothing to prevent this.

    Islam is just as evil as Christianity is, and vice-versa. In areas where Christians feel threatened, terrorists tend to wear crosses (Uganda, Southern US). In areas where Muslims feel threatened, they carry copies of the Qur’an. The real difference is geo-political, not theological. Both have seriously violent and vile writings to be inspired by when they plan to do violence on their neighbours.

    1. 3.1

      Similarly, when Americans feel threatened, they kill other people using words like “freedom” and “democracy”.
      Nobody ever claims to kill other people in the name of irrational hate. You can only ever kid yourself that you’re doing it in a noble cause; the more noble, the more effective it is.

  3. 4

    Ignorance/superstition + modern technology = the occasional shit storm of dangerous stupidity. Cultural trappings, religion, racism, and nationalism are only window dressing to the more basic issues that have continually confronted the striving and generally civilized human animal. Tribalism and its common companion fear are the real issues; and religion is nothing more than one particular manifestation of those all too common and often defining defining human traits.

  4. 5

    It depends on the politicians in charge atm. An agressive politico can incite the followers of any Abrahamic religion to a warmongering fervor. I don’t think any of these religions is any better than another.

    I wonder if the US population could have been convinced to support the invasion of Iraq if the US were not predominantly Christian.

    The Israelis use religion as a weapon to support their discriminatory policies against Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.

    1. 5.1

      I wonder if the US population could have been convinced to support the invasion of Iraq if the US were not predominantly Christian.

      Of course they could. If you can convince someone that their freedom and security are at stake, people will put up with all kinds of abominations regardless of their religious adherence or otherwise.

  5. 7

    You’d have make a context independent definition of Muslim before the question could even be considered. I’m not an expert on Islamic orthodoxy, but I know that Christian orthodoxy is wildly different between centuries and locations. The actions and expected beliefs that defined one as Christian to one’s peers in 14th century Germany have virtually nothing to do with the actions and beliefs that define one as Christian to one’s peers in 21st century American.

    Define Muslim, Christian, and religion, and terrorism, and we can go from there.

    1. 7.1

      “I know that Christian orthodoxy is wildly different between centuries and locations.”

      That is exactly my point.

      As for quibbling over definitions, I am just going with the commonly-accepted definitions of the terms.

      1. Isn’t there much less drift in commonly held beliefs as well?

        I know practices can vary wildly, but generally the beliefs held by different Muslim groups tend to fall into the same space for the most part.

  6. 8

    Muslims Christians. Both, like all humans, are capable of bad and good behaviour that they justify in the name of their faith. I just read Chasing a Mirage, about the difference between a state of Islam and an Islamic State. The hypothesis is that Muslims are killing eachother in horrific numbers in the pursuit of an Islamic State, when they should be peacefully seeking an inner state of Islam. Definitely a good read if you’re looking for a quick history of Islam from the perspective of a devoit Muslim who hates the mixture of politics and religion.

    I agree with Jacob V – tribalism is the real problem. Us versus them is a horrible way to look at humanity.

  7. 9

    For me all religions are, by their nature, prone to violence against other religions. It’s in their genes.
    “Our god is the best, our god is champion” is their main credo.
    I’m an equal opportunity man, therefore I loathe all religions equally. Religion is the root of all evil.

  8. 10

    Technically, Occidental would refer to everyone in “the West” but there’s really no way to not be problematic when talking about socio-political economic zones. Essentially, you’re referring to every culture that’s descended from European roots.


    I think there’s also a lot of confusion about what terrorism means to Muslims. It isn’t a sacrament or anything like that, at least from what I know. The terrorists in Eurasia (whether we’re talking about London or Sri Lanka) are fighting for what they see as their rights. Whether those rights are justified or correct is another debate entirely, but the terrorists see themselves as freedom fighters in their own way. Contrary,a lot of people don’t realize that Islam in America is about as likely to be trying to create a theocracy as Christianity in America (well, maybe per capita – I think on the average there’s more actual Christian Dominionists that actually get into office). To a lot of American Muslims, this is home and they’ve got no interest in blowing up home.

  9. 11

    I will start off by saying my personal view of Muslims has been skewed by anecdotal experiences which I obtained while working on my masters degree… every Muslim I’ve known has been a friendly reasonable person with whom I’ve had no trouble getting along with. I basically fall in the Muslims are no worse than Christian’s camp but that glosses over and trivializes an important reality: It’s not that Muslims are evil and scary it’s that there are evil and scary Muslims. There are evil and scary Christians too (and, to be fair, evil and scary atheistic environmentalists) but in ‘western’ culture the real ‘kill it it’s different from us’ breed of extremists are marginalized where in ‘non-western’ cultures they are highly influential.

    There was a time when the Middle Eastern (Islamic) culture the culture of tolerance and reason now its western culture. This is the shape that today’s geopolitical and social structure has taken. In the end this isn’t a religion issue this is a human issue…

  10. 12

    Travelling in Malaysia, I recall a War Memorial in Penang where there was an exhibition of Japanese torture instruments. Right next to it was a gruesome photograph from Al Jazeera showing closeups of dead civilians killed in the bombing of Iraq – the sort of thing that is all too often written off casually as “collateral damage”.

    It seems that many Malysians regard the “accidental” killing of their Muslim brothers in Iraq as a war crime on a par with the atrocities committed by the Japanese in WWII.

    Damn neocons have got us hated by people in one of the most populous Muslim nations in the world, and a near neighbour of Australia.

    FUCK You, Neocons!

  11. 13

    With your opening question, are we talking about Muslims or al-Qaeda? I say this as the weigh in is, ‘Muslims are evil and scary vs. Muslims are no worse than Christians‘. I think that al-Qaeda is scary. All religious extremist/fundamentalist are scary to me. Comparing ‘Muslims no worse than Christians’ is apples to oranges. There are a lot of complicated issues that come into play: culture, belief systems, geography, governments, war, and so on. With that said, my heart extends to people who are being oppressed like those that you described in your article.

  12. 14


    I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I once had the overly simplistic and bigoted view that the more religious a Muslim was, the more he tended to support terrorism. That’s not the case actually, because there are a lot of devote Muslims who don’t and looks to words in the Koran and the Hadithes that condemn violence. There’s also a lot more Muslims condemning violence committed in the name of Islam than I once thought. I personally wish I had done more research instead of listening to anti Muslim bigots like Robert Spencer.

  13. 16

    It looks to me like what you are asking is
    “What’s worse, Christianity or Islam?” We can turn that into a falsifiable statement:

    “Islam is worse than Christianity.”

    but before it can be answered you have to define: Islam, worse than, and Christianity, and over what time line. You can’t just hand wave it and say “whatever meaning is commonly accepted.” Accepted by who? Accepted where? Accepted when? Falsifiable statements are not subjective. That’s why proving them false (or not) matters.

    Honestly, I’m not just quibbling to be obnoxious, I think it is a serious question, and I think it can be given a rigorous answer if the terms are defined accurately enough to no longer be open to subjective interpretation.

    1. 16.1

      …what? There’s no mention of Christianity anywhere in Heina’s answer to someone else’s question, which is the bolded part at the beginning of the article.

      There’s absolutely no comparison in what Heina said in regards to Christianity, it’s just an overview of terrorism in regards to Islam. The post takes a global view and it doesn’t apologize or explain away anything, it just points out facts.

      I really don’t see where you’re getting Heina’s comparison of Islam to Christianity from. There was no outline of Christian crimes or ideologies at all in this article.

  14. 17

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue, especially since I’ve found myself becoming more of a “progressive” and finding that a lot of the rhetoric within the atheist community now turns me off.

    My biggest issue with the western atheist POV on terror is that it completely buys into the blinkered “why do they hate our freedoms?” mindset of the United States etc. It’s taken as a given that anger towards the west is inherently irrational, so we have to blame something intrinsic to Islam.

    But it’s not like Muslims woke up one day, read the Qur’an, and said “Hey, you know who fits the description of our enemy? The west!” Anger towards us didn’t spring fully formed from a book. It is based on (recent) history, and Muslims, like all religious people, can justify whatever they want by reading it into their holy text.

    I see Islamic terror as a small overlap of the circles labelled “hate the US a lot” and “crazypants religious nutbags”. Nothing wrong with the former, and the latter is universal to humanity. Our goal should be to shrink both circles so that there is very little overlap.

    1. 17.1

      @zeroanaphora, @Marilove (at the top of the page):

      Brilliant comments both.

      I too see the issue to be primarily geopolitical.

      (How to say this briefly and tie it in with your comment about shrinking the circles?)

      Like charity, the battle for hearts and minds begins at home – that is to say, to reduce hatred FOR the US, hatred BY the US must be reduced.

      We in the West need to realise how tiny the terrorist problem really is.

      Get out there and travel in Muslim countries. Read the newspapers. Speak to the average people.

      My experience was of an overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable reception, in both Malaysia and Indonesia, the two biggest Muslim countries in the world.

      Maybe one OBL teashirt seen in ten trips throughout SE Asia. Also the picture I mentioned above.

      In the papers, not ONE reference to terrorism or the hunt for OBL, and this at a time when the Western press was full of it every day.

      Censorship? I doubt it – they are more concerned with problems closer to home.

      Makes you realise how brainwashed we really are with our so called “free press”.

  15. 18

    It was from the big bolded part at the top where it says “I’d like to see you weigh in on the Muslims are evil and scary vs. Muslims are no worse than Christians”

    Specifically, the “no worse than Christians part”.

  16. 20

    I remember when i went to university meeting muslims for the first time. They were just as open and progressive as anybody else. I think it’s true that in most cases someones religion fits itself to their morality, and not the other way round. for me, the recent uprisings in so many islamic countries are also a sign that the base has had enough of the oppression justified by the charicature of islam practised by the leaders.
    I also find it unsettling that while we in the west have been at war with ‘islamic terrorism’ for 10 years now, i doubt many know the basic tenets or history of islam. there has been little attempt made by the media or government to teach people about life in various islamic countries or islam in general. this has served to keep muslims homogeneous and distant.
    a quick book tip by the way, if someone here would like to learn more about early islam, i can recommend After the Prophet by Lesley Hazleton:
    She also has a TED talk here:

    Well worth reading and watching.

  17. 21

    There is an excellent Adam Curtis documentary – The Power of Nightmares – which covers a lot of the background of Islamic terrorism (as well as the rise of the neo-conservatives in the US). Part 3 focuses on the rise of Al-Qaeda, and about how the whole threat is largely fictional and blown out of all proportion by those with an interest in doing so, in the US and UK. Challenges a lot of what we think we know about the “global broad-based militant Islamist terrorist organization” (as Wikipedia calls it).

    It’s available free on the internet archive: , totally worth watching.

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