soulages eaux fortes 10

My latest column for the New York Times is on radical Islam and about what acts such as the massacre of school children in Peshawar by the Taliban tell us about Islam and about radicalism. Here are the opening paragraphs; you can read the full version in the NYT.

Faced with a horror like the slaughter of 148 schoolchildren and school staff members by the Taliban in Pakistan, it is tempting to describe the act as ‘inhuman’ or ‘medieval’. What made the massacre particularly chilling, though, is that it was neither. The killings were all too human and of our time.

The Peshawar massacre may have been particularly abhorrent, but the Taliban have attacked at least 1,000 schools over the past five years. They have butchered hundreds through suicide bombings of churches and mosques. And beyond Pakistan lies the brutality of groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Shabab.

What seems to bind these groups together is that they claim to act in the name of Islam. Why, many ask, do so many of today’s most vicious conflicts appear to involve Islamists? And why do Islamist groups seem so much more vicious, sadistic, even evil?

Muslims are not the only religious group involved in perpetrating horrors. From Christian militias in the Central African Republic reportedly eating their foes to Buddhist monks organizing anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar, there is cruelty aplenty in the world. Nor are religious believers alone in committing grotesque acts. Yet, critics argue, there appears to be something particularly potent about Islam in fomenting violence, terror and persecution.

These are explosive issues and need addressing carefully. The trouble is, this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear. For many, the actions of groups like the Islamic State or the Taliban merely provide ammunition to promote anti-Muslim hatred.

Many liberals, on the other hand, prefer to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the Taliban or the Islamic State do not represent ‘real Islam’ — a claim made recently, in so many words, by both President Obama and David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain. Many argue, too, that the actions of such groups are driven by politics, not religion

Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts – that is, by its practices. The ways in which believers act out their faith define that faith. The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.

Read the full article in the New York Times.

The painting is Pierre Soulages, Eaux Fortes 10


  1. Mark O'Boyle

    You forgot to mention the extreme mysogeny prevalent throughout Islam. And, of course the Ottoman Empire. There is a cultural rigidity to Islam that dissipates further east but nonetheless continues. The freedom to drink alcohol would be a large step in the right direction. As would young men and women intermingling.

  2. bruce madeiros

    I thought your comment very interesting and I think you have a very valid point which the liberal politicians like Cameron don’t understand.
    However based on the article “U.N. Warns of Anti-Muslim Violence in Central African Republic” you suggested that Christian militias eat their foes and yet this report says that the Militias known as anti-balaka are responsible for most of the killings and are evolving into criminal gangs that not only hunt down Muslims but also prey on Christians and other non-Muslims ! So are there Christians eating other Christians?
    With regards to the extremists following the Qur’an you can’t fault them as they clearly follow the suras that Mohammad said he heard when he was in Medina which are the violent ones compared to the suras that Mohammad said he heard when he was in Mecca which are more peaceful . Furthermore according to Muslim jurisprudence if there is a discrepancy between two suras then the latest one is correct. So the likes of Tariq Ramadan, who mainly follows the Mecca suras, he is probably considered by the likes of the IS as not having the latest revelation and hence giving an incorrect understanding of Islam.

  3. DHMCarver

    I always enjoy reading your pieces — it will be interesting to see you fold this analysis into a discussion of what happened yesterday in Paris.Part of the battle against modernity about which you wrote seems to be the battle against the ideals of the Enlightenment. The radicals who assassinated the staff of Charlie Hebdo yesterday have made it clear what they think about the Enlightenment.

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