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Thankfully, here in the US, we have all kinds of secular laws to push back against this kind of thing (although it took until 1993 for marital rape to be criminalized in all 50 states, and even today various exceptions exist). But not every country’s female population is so fortunate. In large swaths of the Muslim world, for instance, where Islamic law is strictly observed (like in parts of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.), women often lack even the most fundamental human rights – including the right to a good education, the right to travel or get a job without their male guardians’ permission, and the right to refuse sex with their husbands (whom they’ve often been forced to marry against their will). It’s common for men to beat their wives (as commanded by verse 4:34 of the Quran), force them to keep their faces covered whenever they leave the home, and keep them segregated from men in public activities – and if they disobey, these women run the risk of being arrested, imprisoned, or worse. In the past decade, thousands of women worldwide have had their faces horrifically melted with acid as retribution for their “wrongdoing,” while others have been beheaded for crimes like adultery and witchcraft. In one particularly outrageous incident, “Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress,” which resulted in 15 of the girls burning to death and 50 more suffering injuries. Many more women and girls have committed suicide after being forced into marriages against their will (in Afghanistan, for instance, 60-80% of marriages are forced, and roughly half of them involve girls under the age of 18).

And it’s not just women who suffer the negative effects of Islamic fundamentalism, either. Pretty much all the worst effects of religious morality that we’ve already discussed are currently afflicting the Muslim world worse than anywhere else. As mentioned before, homosexuality is still punishable by death in several Muslim countries, and gay people are being tortured, castrated, hurled from rooftops, and beheaded for the crime of loving each other. Leaving the Islamic faith is likewise considered a capital crime, and non-Muslims are periodically executed for blasphemy and apostasy. Non-Muslims have also been targeted for large-scale terrorism (as in the 9/11 attacks and the thousands of others since) and genocide (as in the recent mass slaughter of Yazidi civilians by ISIS). And even something as simple as drawing a picture of Muhammad has proven sufficiently blasphemous to trigger retaliatory mass shootings and bombings on multiple occasions. Muslim fundamentalists have also censored and destroyed great works of art that they considered blasphemous, burned down libraries, and demolished priceless historical sites and artifacts, all with the stated goal of destroying everything non-Islamic. And in some instances, they’ve even banned forms of expression like music and movies altogether for everyone living under their rule. It might be hard for us in the West to imagine something as dismal as growing up without music, but for countless people it’s the least of their worries, thanks to religious fundamentalism.


In a way, the fact that there’s so much extremism in the Muslim world shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, because the religious rules in many of these communities are so restrictive that they leave people with little else to channel their energy into except religious zealotry. Living in an environment with little or no access to movies, internet, music, dating, nightclubs, libraries, museums, or political life (all things that fundamentalist regimes have restricted or banned at various points in recent history) can make it feel like religion is all there is. Restless young men with nothing else to keep them occupied and grounded can get so swept up in their dogma that they end up basing their entire identity on how devout they can be. And when you combine that level of devotion toward an already-uncompromising ideology with the hormone-fueled angst and aggression that so often come with being a young man in general, the result is exactly the kind of violent fundamentalism we see today.

(Some might disagree with calling Islam an uncompromising ideology; but just to illustrate how extreme it can really be – not only in practice, but in its fundamental principles – Harris provides a list of some of the Quran’s nastier teachings here.)

Of course, there are other factors contributing to this fanaticism too. Western military actions in Muslim countries, for instance, certainly fuel the flames of resentment and reinforce the “clash of civilizations” narrative which says that Islam is at war with the rest of the world. The backlash from these interventions is so intense, in fact, that some commentators have suggested that Western military action is the only factor driving violence in these regions, and that religion isn’t a factor at all. But to overlook the central role that religion plays here would be a major mistake. Geopolitical factors like military occupation might serve as the water and soil that this extremism needs to grow into ever more violent action, but religious ideology is the seed itself. As Harris writes:

To describe the principal aims of a group like al Qaeda as “nationalistic” […] is simply ludicrous. Al Qaeda’s goal is the establishment of a global caliphate. And even in those cases where a jihadist like Osama bin Laden seemed to voice concern about the fate of a nation, his grievances with its “occupiers” were primarily theological. Osama bin Laden objected to the presence of infidels in proximity to the holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula. And we were not “occupiers” of Saudi Arabia, in any case. We were there by the permission of the Saudi regime – a regime that bin Laden considered insufficiently Islamic. To say that members of al Qaeda have perpetrated terrorist atrocities against U.S. interests and innocent Muslims because of a “nationalistic” agenda is to just play a game with words.

[A] narrow focus on [anti-Western] suicide terrorism also allows [some commentators] to ignore all the other barbarism in the Muslim world that has its origins in religion. Was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie the result of foreign occupation? The Danish cartoon controversy? The calls for blood over a poorly named teddy bear? The movement to hang atheist bloggers in Bangladesh? What about the internecine murders of apostates in Pakistan (accomplished, all too often, by suicide bombers)? The ubiquitous abuse of women? Are these problems also the result of western occupation? How do the perpetrators of these crimes explain their own behavior? It is always by reference to their most sacred concern: Islam.


And things only seem to have gotten worse lately. Despite the general trend of religious fundamentalism (and the violence that accompanies it) decreasing throughout most of the world in recent years, within the Muslim world it has not only persisted but gained new life, as Pinker explains:

The Muslim world, to all appearances, is sitting out the decline of violence. More than two decades of headlines have shocked Westerners with acts of barbarity in the name of Islam. Among them are the 1989 clerical death threat against Salman Rushdie for portraying Muhammad in a novel, the 2002 sentencing of an unmarried pregnant woman in Nigeria to execution by stoning, the fatal stabbing in 2004 of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh for producing Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s film about the treatment of women in Islamic countries, the lethal 2005 riots after a Danish newspaper printed editorial cartoons that were disrespectful to the prophet, the jailing and threat of flogging of a British schoolteacher in Sudan who allowed her class to name a teddy bear Muhammad, and of course the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which nineteen Muslims killed almost three thousand civilians.

The impression that the Muslim world indulges kinds of violence that the West has outgrown is not a symptom of Islamophobia or Orientalism but is borne out by the numbers. Though about a fifth of the world’s population is Muslim, and about a quarter of the world’s countries have a Muslim majority, more than half of the armed conflicts in 2008 embroiled Muslim countries or insurgencies. Muslim countries force a greater proportion of their citizens into their armies than non-Muslim countries do, holding other factors constant. Muslim groups held two-thirds of the slots on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, and (as mentioned) in 2008 Sunni terrorists killed nearly two-thirds of the world’s victims of terrorism whose perpetrators could be identified.

In defiance of the rising tide of democracy, only about a quarter of Islamic countries elect their governments, and most of them are only dubiously democratic. Their leaders receive farcically high percentages of the vote, and they exercise the power to jail opponents, outlaw opposition parties, suspend parliament, and cancel elections. It’s not just that Islamic countries happen to have risk factors for autocracy, such as being larger, poorer, or richer in oil. Even in a regression analysis that holds these factors constant, countries with larger proportions of Muslims have fewer political rights. Political rights are very much a matter of violence, of course, since they amount to being able to speak, write, and assemble without being dragged off to jail.

The laws and practices of many Muslim countries seem to have missed out on the Humanitarian Revolution. According to Amnesty International, almost three-quarters of Muslim countries execute their criminals, compared to a third of non-Muslim countries, and many use cruel punishments such as stoning, branding, blinding, amputation of tongues or hands, and even crucifixion. Every year more than a hundred million girls in Islamic countries have their genitals mutilated, and when they grow up they may be disfigured with acid or killed outright if they displease their fathers, their brothers, or the husbands who have been forced upon them. Islamic countries were the last to abolish slavery (as recently as 1962 in Saudi Arabia and 1980 in Mauritania), and a majority of the countries in which people continue to be trafficked are Muslim. In many Muslim countries, witchcraft is not just on the books as a crime but is commonly prosecuted. In 2009, for example, Saudi Arabia convicted a man for carrying a phone booklet with characters in an alphabet from his native Eritrea, which the police interpreted as occult symbols. He was lashed three hundred times and imprisoned for more than three years.

Violence is sanctioned in the Islamic world not just by religious superstition but by a hyperdeveloped culture of honor. The political scientists Khaled Fattah and K. M. Fierke have documented how a “discourse of humiliation” runs through the ideology of Islamist organizations. A sweeping litany of affronts – the Crusades, the history of Western colonization, the existence of Israel, the presence of American troops on Arabian soil, the underperformance of Islamic countries – are taken as insults to Islam and used to license indiscriminate vengeance against members of the civilization they hold responsible, together with Muslim leaders of insufficient ideological purity. The radical fringe of Islam harbors an ideology that is classically genocidal: history is seen as a violent struggle that will culminate in the glorious subjugation of an irredeemably evil class of people. Spokesmen for Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian regime have demonized enemy groups (Zionists, infidels, crusaders, polytheists), spoken of a millennial cataclysm that would usher in a utopia, and justified the killing of entire categories of people such as Jews, Americans, and those felt to insult Islam.

The historian Bernard Lewis is not the only one who has asked, “What went wrong?” In 2002 a committee of Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the United Nations published the candid Arab Human Development Report, said to be “written by Arabs for Arabs.” The authors documented that Arab nations were plagued by political repression, economic backwardness, oppression of women, widespread illiteracy, and a self-imposed isolation from the world of ideas. At the time of the report, the entire Arab world exported fewer manufactured goods than the Philippines, had poorer Internet connectivity than sub-Saharan Africa, registered 2 percent as many patents per year as South Korea, and translated about a fifth as many books into Arabic as Greece translates into Greek.

It wasn’t always that way. During the Middle Ages, Islamic civilization was unquestionably more refined than Christendom. While Europeans were applying their ingenuity to the design of instruments of torture, Muslims were preserving classical Greek culture, absorbing the knowledge of the civilizations of India and China, and advancing astronomy, architecture, cartography, medicine, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Among the symbolic legacies of this age are the “Arabic numbers” (adapted from India) and loan words such as alcohol, algebra, alchemy, alkali, azimuth, alembic, and algorithm. Just as the West had to come from behind to overtake Islam in science, so it was a laggard in human rights. Lewis notes:

In most tests of tolerance, Islam, both in theory and in practice, compares unfavorably with the Western democracies as they have developed during the last two or three centuries, but very favorably with most other Christian and post-Christian societies and regimes. There is nothing in Islamic history to compare with the emancipation, acceptance, and integration of other-believers and non-believers in the West; but equally, there is nothing in Islamic history to compare with the Spanish expulsion of Jews and Muslims, the Inquisition, the Auto da fé’s, the wars of religion, not to speak of more recent crimes of commission and acquiescence.

Why did Islam blow its lead and fail to have an Age of Reason, an Enlightenment, and a Humanitarian Revolution? Some historians point to bellicose passages in the Koran, but compared to our own genocidal scriptures, they are nothing that some clever exegesis and evolving norms couldn’t spin-doctor away.

Lewis points instead to the historical lack of separation between mosque and state. Muhammad was not just a spiritual leader but a political and military one, and only recently have any Islamic states had the concept of a distinction between the secular and the sacred. With every potential intellectual contribution filtered through religious spectacles, opportunities for absorbing and combining new ideas were lost. Lewis recounts that while works in philosophy and mathematics had been translated from classical Greek into Arabic, works of poetry, drama, and history were not. And while Muslims had a richly developed history of their own civilization, they were incurious about their Asian, African, and European neighbors and about their own pagan ancestors. The Ottoman heirs to classical Islamic civilization resisted the adoption of mechanical clocks, standardized weights and measures, experimental science, modern philosophy, translations of poetry and fiction, the financial instruments of capitalism, and perhaps most importantly, the printing press. (Arabic was the language in which the Koran was written, so printing it was considered an act of desecration.) […] I [have] speculated that the Humanitarian Revolution in Europe was catalyzed by a literate cosmopolitanism, which expanded people’s circle of empathy and set up a marketplace of ideas from which a liberal humanism could emerge. Perhaps the dead hand of religion impeded the flow of new ideas into the centers of Islamic civilization, locking it into a relatively illiberal stage of development. As if to prove the speculation correct, in 2010 the Iranian government restricted the number of university students who would be admitted to programs in the humanities, because, according to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, study of the humanities “promotes skepticism and doubt in religious principles and beliefs.”

Whatever the historical reasons, a large chasm appears to separate Western and Islamic cultures today. According to a famous theory from the political scientist Samuel Huntington, the chasm has brought us to a new age in the history of the world: the clash of civilizations. “In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame,” he wrote. “This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to Central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”

Of course, Pinker then goes on to rightly point out that this “clash of civilizations” narrative, which frames the conflict in terms of Muslims vs. the rest of the world, is far too black-and-white:

The entire concept of “Islamic civilization” does a disservice to the 1.3 billion men and women who call themselves Muslims, living in countries as diverse as Mali, Nigeria, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. And cutting across the divide of the Islamic world into continents and countries is another divide that is even more critical. Westerners tend to know Muslims through two dubious exemplars: the fanatics who grab headlines with their fatwas and jihads, and the oil-cursed autocrats who rule over them. The beliefs of the hitherto silent (and frequently silenced) majority make less of a contribution to our stereotypes.

And Harris adds:

It is true that this politicized strain of Islam is a source of much of the world’s chaos and intolerance at this moment. But it is also true that no one suffers more from this chaos and intolerance than Muslims themselves. Most victims of terrorism are Muslim; the women who are forced to wear burkhas or are murdered in so-called “honor killings” are Muslim; the men who are thrown from rooftops for being born gay are Muslim. Most of the people the world over who can’t even dream of speaking or writing freely are Muslim. And modern, reform-minded Muslims, most of all, want to uproot the causes of this needless misery and conflict.

So the situation isn’t so much “Muslims vs. the world” as it is “fundamentalist Muslims vs. everyone they deem to be insufficiently devout (Muslim or otherwise).” Or to be even more accurate – it’s not so much “one group of people vs. another group of people” at all; it’s more like “a toxic ideology vs. the people whose minds it poisons and those who are harmed as a result.” In other words, the problem here isn’t the believers themselves – who, aside from their religious views, are perfectly normal, decent people – the problem is the religious ideology that causes them to do terrible things.

I think this distinction between believers and belief is an important one to make, because a lot of non-Muslims (not just here in the US but worldwide) seem eager to blur that distinction and condemn the former just as readily as the latter. They hold a blanket prejudice against Muslims, lumping them all together with the likes of ISIS and the Taliban. But equating all Muslims with the Taliban is no more accurate than equating all Christians with the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s true that most Muslims, if you asked them whether they endorsed the Quran and its laws, would say yes. But as Pinker points out, professing to believe in your religion’s teachings isn’t necessarily the same as internalizing and acting on all of those teachings; if it were, then all the Jews and Christians here in the US who professed to believe in the divinity of biblical law would be stoning people to death in the streets themselves:

Majorities of Muslims in Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and Bangladesh told [Gallup] pollsters that Sharia, the principles behind Islamic law, should be the only source of legislation in their countries, and majorities in most of the countries said it should be at least one of the sources. On the other hand, a majority of Americans believe that the Bible should be one of the sources of legislation, and presumably they don’t mean that people who work on Sunday should be stoned to death. Religion thrives on woolly allegory, emotional commitments to texts that no one reads, and other forms of benign hypocrisy. Like Americans’ commitment to the Bible, most Muslims’ commitment to Sharia is more a symbolic affiliation with moral attitudes they associate with the best of their culture than a literal desire to see adulteresses stoned to death. In practice, creative and expedient readings of Sharia for liberal ends have often prevailed against the oppressive fundamentalist readings. (The Nigerian woman, for example, was never executed.) Presumably that is why most Muslims see no contradiction between Sharia and democracy. Indeed, despite their professed affection for the idea of Sharia, a large majority believe that religious leaders should have no direct role in drafting their country’s constitution.


More than 90 percent [of Muslims polled] would guarantee freedom of speech in their nation’s constitution, and large numbers also support freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. Substantial majorities of both sexes in all the major Muslim countries say that women should be allowed to vote without influence from men, to work at any job, to enjoy the same legal rights as men, and to serve in the highest levels of government. And as we have seen, overwhelming majorities of the Muslim world reject the violence of Al Qaeda. Only 7 percent of the Gallup respondents approved the 9/11 attacks, and that was before Al Qaeda’s popularity cratered in 2007.

So again, it’s worth stressing that most Muslims – like most Christians – aren’t violent fundamentalists; they’re just normal, decent people who want to live their lives peacefully. And to the extent that so many of them do profess abhorrent beliefs – again, like many Christians do – it’s largely because they’re required to do so by the religion they’ve been raised in, not because they actually believe it on a gut level. Most Muslims don’t truly believe that nonbelievers deserve death, any more than most Christians truly believe that nonbelievers deserve to burn eternally in Hell.

That being said, though, the fact that any people of faith believe these kinds of things at all is an extremely serious problem, and not one to be taken lightly. Seven percent of Muslims saying that 9/11 was justified might sound like a reassuringly low number; but given that there are roughly two billion Muslims worldwide, that still equates to over a hundred million people thinking that 9/11 was justified. And when you combine that with other relevant poll results from countries like Egypt and Pakistan, like 80% of Muslim respondents saying that adulterers should be stoned, that homosexuality is unacceptable, and that people who leave Islam should be put to death, it’s clear that religious ideology has had some truly horrible effects in these places. No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that Islam is experiencing a much bigger and more dangerous problem with fundamentalism than any other religion is right now. And we should be just as alarmed by this as we would be if, say, some equivalently shocking percentage of Christians you met on the street were members of a Westboro-type church (or worse). Again, the point here isn’t that Muslims as a group deserve any kind of persecution – it should go without saying that the inhumane treatment they’re enduring in so many parts of the world today is unconscionable. The point is simply that the ideas promoted by Islam (like those promoted by Judaism and Christianity) are often extremely harmful – and the world would be a better place without such harmful ideas.

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