Disbelief in belief

A man walking in the forest at night arrives at a house with lights burning inside. Looking through the window, he sees people jumping frantically and flailing about. Poor fellows, thinks the man: they are having seizures, or they must be terribly ill, or they have become insane. What the man doesn’t hear is the music playing inside. The people are dancing and singing for a wedding. Gershom Gorenberg recounts this Jewish-Chassidic parable in his splendid book The End of Days on the danger of apocalyptic belief systemsIts morale? If you don’t hear the music of faith, you will conclude that the dancers are out of their mind.

In our secular age, many have grown estranged from religion and turned a deaf ear to faith. All we hear is its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, in the words of Matthew Arnold. Religion seemed like a distant echo of times gone by.

Now, alas, we can no longer ignore the ear-shattering blasts of suicide belts, the rattle of machine rifles, and the shouting of “Allahu Akbar” invariably preceding it. Terrorist attacks dedicated to the greater glory of a Supreme Being are being carried out across the world almost on a daily basis. The religious motivation of ISIS and numerous kindred groups is blatantly obvious for anyone who cares to listen to their faith-imbued songs. The atrocities are justified on the basis of religious scripture and tradition. They are intended as punishment for our decadent and sinful ways, for our refusal to accept the final revelation of Islam, and for our resistance against the divinely sanctioned caliphate.

Godless westerners, however, for whom God’s name mainly evokes sweet childhood memories, find it exceedingly difficult to understand the mental universe of religious fanatics. Religion, in the eyes of these people, cannot be more than a convenient pretext for violence, a façade disguising true motivations. Besides, does anyone reallybelieve in those juvenile fantasies about a heavenly brothel with 72 dark-eyed virgins and wine that doesn’t give you hangovers?

This inability to understand religious fanatics, ironically, is shared by many moderate religious believers. These folk see religion as intrinsically peaceful and benign, and therefore cannot accept its potential for hatred and violence, without experiencing violent cognitive dissonance. In lieu of religion, these two allied groups try desperately to unearth some grievance or frustration on the part of terrorists which would be understandable from within a secular frame of mind, and which would be commensurate to the their utterly barbaric acts. Explanations that are still in vogue, despite having been repeatedly refuted, include socio-economic disenfranchisement, unemployment, troubled family backgrounds, discrimination and racism. Also popular are circular non-explanations such as “brainwashing” (but then who washed the brains of the brainwashers?), or the one to which the man in the parable resorted: insanity.

For these people, if religion plays a role at all, it’s only a side show. The leaders of ISIS may be devout, but most recruits are just violent criminals and psychopaths. Or, alternatively, the foot soldiers of jihad may be religious zealots, but they have been shrewdly exploited as cannon fodder by worldly leaders craving for power and wealth.

This is a dramatic failure of imagination, which has real consequences. After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Salman Rushdie affair, some maintained that, if only we stopped drawing scabrous cartoons and writing irreverent stories about each other’s prophets, we could all get along and no such horrible tragedies would have to occur again. Even today, there are some who believe that ISIS will leave us alone as soon as we pull out of Iraq and Syria. One of the reason why authorities underestimated the threat of ISIS in Europe is that they could not imagine why the group would divert resources to target Western countries, at a time when they were struggling to establish a caliphate at home. Because that wouldn’t make sense, right?

Such tragic miscalculations ignore the inherent expansionism of apocalyptic jihadism, which commands the caliph to wage offensive war against the whole world, including even their closest ideological kin in Saudi-Arabia, until they have enslaved, killed or converted every last infidel and ‘apostate’ (meaning all Muslims from other sects than their own extreme brand of Salafism). ISIS fanatics see the events on the world stage, both their terrorist plots and our reaction against it, through the lens of their apocalyptic visions, with the true believers on one side, fighting for a worldwide caliphate and for the rewards of paradise, and the assorted crusaders, kafirs, hypocrites, apostates, blasphemers and heretics on the other side. They eagerly look forward to the final showdown between the two camps in a place called Dabiq (not coincidentally the name of their glossy), starring the Messiah (Mahdi) and Satan (Dajjal), and a cameo for a certain Jesus (Jeshua).

In a recent paper, the biologist Jerry Coyne and I have taken issue with this inability of many of our secular friends to understand the perspective of devout fundamentalists. They have become so alienated from religious faith, steeped as they are in a thoroughly secularized environment, that they struggle to take it seriously at all. They don’t just find the doctrines implausible, but they find it even implausible that anyone would be insane enough to believe them. In our paper, and in the ensuing exchange with philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen, we call this secular incredulity in the face of religious faith “disbelief in belief”. If you find yourself doubting whether anyone genuinely believes in an afterlife with 72 bashful virgins, you are a disbeliever in belief.

Even if people admit, reluctantly, that jihadi terrorists have some bizarre beliefs about the nature of the universe, many still scoff at the idea that this animates their behavior. The fact that ISIS terrorist attacks are so indiscriminate, targeting even fellow Muslims, is often appealed to as “proof” that religion is not their genuine motivation. But this ignores the takfiri theology of jihadism, according to which any Muslim who lives under a secular regime with democratically elected leaders, and who has failed to heed the call to join the caliphate, is ipso facto an apostate deserving to be killed. 

Many commentators also fail to grasp the true objectives of ISIS, even while paying lip service to the group’s undeniable religious motivation. This is witnessed by the many gratuitous instances of the trope “If we [blank], then the terrorists win”. In response to the horrible attacks in Brussel, the editors of the New York Times opined that, if we now chose to increase surveillance and rein in civil liberties, we are only “serving the terrorists’ end”. But though it is true that we should not sacrifice our civil liberties lightly, does anyone seriously believe that the main objective of a death cult like ISIS is something as parochial as “more surveillance in the West”? Terrorists do not want to turn our nations into police states — they want to topple them and establish a world-spanning caliphate, so as to hasten the End of Days. More surveillance may or may not be a good idea in our fight against ISIS, but that is our call. Terrorists could not care less: a godless police state is no less of an offence to them (remember the fight of the mujahideen against the Soviet Union) than a society where civil liberties are constitutionally enshrined.

It is also argued that the criminal records and licentious behavior of ISIS recruits show that they are far less pious than they proclaim to be. But again, this argument fails to appreciate the belief system and ethos of jihadism. In the eyes of ISIS, unbelievers and apostates are fair game, to which the usual standards of moral conduct do not apply. If your aim is to wage a righteous jihad, then any available means are justified by that end. In her undercover work in Brussels town of Molenbeek, Hind Fraihi already noted that radical preachers explicitly sanction stealing from infidels, as long as the spoils are invested in righteous jihad. ISIS manuals encourage jihadists on European soil to dispense with compulsory religious clothing, shave their beards and even wear Christian crucifixes, so as to better blend in among the infidels and not to raise any suspicions.

Moreover, the argument that some IS recruits already have a “pre-existing attraction to violence”, for which ISIS ideology simply provides a convenient way of “expression”, has another obvious shortcoming. If you enjoy violence and bloodshed, why blow yourself up in the process? It is a strange way of  “expressing” your violent proclivities that doesn’t even allow you to witness your own achievements, because you yourself are instantly obliterated. Is there any way to make sense of such bizarre behavior, except in the light of heartfelt beliefs about rewards in the afterlife?
Hard though it may be for the godless to accept, some people really do believe in the imminent End Times and the 72 virgins awaiting them in paradise. We ignore the reality of such sincere convictions at our own peril. The terrorists of IS are neither mad nor brainwashed. Their brains have been infected by a number of dangerous supernatural delusions, with deep roots in the Quran and in monotheistic tradition.

If you continue to believe that ISIS has worldly objectives, that it makes negotiable demands, that military interventions will deter rather than galvanize it, or that it has nothing to do with Islam because many of its victims are Muslims, you are living in a fantasy world yourself. You are deluded about other people’s delusions. You are like the man in the Jewish parable, tone-deaf to the Danse Macabre of religious fanaticism. 

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