The Boston Marathon Bombing and The Faith Privilege

This article first appeared in the Algemeiner on April 23, 2013.  You can read the follow up there now: “A Campaign of Willful Blindness on Terrorism.”

The Boston Marathon bombing provoked enactment of what has emerged, since 9/11, as a ritual of political theater refined even beyond its long history of performance. Even while law enforcement authorities were still early in the search for unknown and unfathomed wreakers  of violent and deadly terror, the players were scripting the drama to play out as they preferred instead to witness it.

There are, then, of course, those who inflame every developing circumstance and wage jihad against jihad. Just as extreme and inflammatory, just as adept at playing to a contrary animus, yet offered by many a greater grant of legitimacy, there are those who write,

As usual, the limits of selective empathy, the rush to blame Muslims, and the exploitation of fear all instantly emerge.

Among the more foolish and widely discussed reactions to the bombing, in the midst still of the search for its perpetrators, was that of David Sirota at bidding, “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.” Sirota’s hope arose from his recognition of the reality of white privilege. Among its features, according to Sirota,

There is a double standard: White terrorists are dealt with as lone wolves, Islamists are existential threats.

Now, one can recognize very real truth in the notion of white privilege and still see that it is a finer insight than the dull blade Sirota wields, beginning with the recognition that unemployed factory workers and low-wage Wal-Mart “associates” enjoy it rather less than white people like, say, David Sirota. Or, for another instance, the person from whom Sirota drew his argument, Tim Wise, the self-advertised “Anti-racist educator, author and educator.” Offered Sirota, from Wise,

“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” writes author Tim Wise. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”

Before we turn momentarily to Wise himself, we do have to take note of the lack of integrity in this argument so far. However one may wish to challenge components or all of the post 9/11 so-named War on Terror, if Wise has evidence that any corn fields or mountain towns anywhere in the world have been bombed “just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas,” he is welcome by all, I am sure, to present it. So far he has not.

One observes, too, that while they were Saudi nationals who led the 9/11 attacks, the United States did not bomb Riyadh. Many terrorists have received training and direction in Pakistan; the U.S. has not yet bombed Islamabad. I believe the Italian-American analogy Wise invokes should more properly lead to the bombing of Rome, but, of course, he seeks to slip in a Western white religious preference in the substitution of the Vatican, so, no, please note, the U.S. has never bombed Mecca either.

At Wise’s own website, he attempts to bolster his case, which purports selective focus and generalization about Islamist terrorism, by offering an exhausting if not exhaustive list of white (presumably non-Muslim) American terrorists. He ends it with everyone’s favorite fallback to colloquial snark, “Ya know, just to name a few.”

A curious thing about the list if one, ya know, actually examines it is how very quickly it begins linking to accounts of crimes dating back not only to the pre 9/11 1990s, but even church bombings from the 1960’s civil rights era and lone bombers from the 1940s and 50s. How very quickly one may find on it, reportedly, mentally unstable people with long criminal records who can only be described as, you should pardon the expression, lone wolves.

Those who argue as Wise does are those who attempt to turn the subject to that of whiteness as a correlative to Islamic faith. With the one hand they grasp at greater historical culpability on the part of white people – white privilege – while with the other hand, they swat away any suggestion of greater contemporary culpability on the part of Islam. They do this by equating an acquired system of belief with an inherent physical characteristic while claiming any imbalance of greater criticism toward either as a bigotry.

What we have here is someone committed to making a case, just not the case itself. The necessity is to understand what the real nature of this commitment to the case is, commitment even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

On Friday, the political comic everyone loves to disdain when he is bluntly, often crudely hammering shibboleths too close to home – Bill Maher – received as his first guest on his Real Time show the California State University San Bernardino professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism. When, at the start of the interview, Maher focused his attention on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Islamic extremism, Levin was moved to interrupt in order to object.

Could I just interject? Look, it’s not like people who are Muslim who do wacky things have a monopoly on it. We have hypocrites across faiths, Jewish, Christian who say they’re out for God and end up doing not so nice things.

Maher called this “liberal bullshit” and tried to focus, again, on contemporary extremist and violent currents in the world. Levin’s immediate response was to tar Maher with a likeness to Pamela Geller and the implication of “Islamaphobia.” That is, any attempt on Maher’s part to argue that all is not one and the same, but that there are historical and empirical distinctions to be made was met not by critical argument, but by critical ad hominem.

LEVIN: Here’s my difficulty with your premise here, Bill, and that is look at how religions over history have had things done in their name that have been terrible.

MAHER: Absolutely. But we’re not in history. We’re in 2013.

For several hundred years, Christianity, after playing its role as equal participant in the God is notlove follies of the Crusades, was ideological support for the trans-continental genocidal terror committed against much of the world’s indigenous populations. White Christian Europe engineered the centuries-long barbarity of the African slave trade. “Anti-racists” like Wise, Sirota, and Levin encounter no mental bar to perceiving those empirical distinctions. When challenged, however, by contemporary empirical reality, Levin can only smear Maher.

LEVIN: If I may, though. You are making an error in that Islam has over 1.4 billion adherents. There’s a heterogeneity to it. Are there extremists who are horrible people who would slit your throats? Yes. But there are also folks that are fine, upstanding people.

MAHER: Of course.

LEVIN: And I’m very worried you have a national audience where we’re promoting Islamic hatred.

But the anti-racists are not, by their own focus on white racism and disallowance of other sources of bigotry and hate, promoting white or Christian hatred by managing to distinguish only the identifiable crimes of European and Christian civilization? Or are only whites and Christians capable of distinguishable levels of social and political deviance? And if one were to claim as much as that, would that not be a kind of racist assertion to be made by an anti-racist? (Can one be anti-racist without the professional label? Let’s hope.)

Maher was a remarkably better thinker in this argument than the professor. He clearly and fundamentally distinguished between analysis of a subject over time, with historical periods and phenomenon perhaps of little relevance and application to current circumstance, and certainly not representing  it, and analysis of the current situation. Levin, a purported expert in the study of hate and extremism was readily empirical in labeling types of, and motivations for, hateful extremism, but he suffered under an intellectual disability to apply the conceptual – ideas derived under the aegis of empirical observation and analysis – back, in turn, in any applied manner to empirical circumstance. According to him, the best we can achieve from the study of hate and violence is the insight that all people and peoples are capable of it, a feckless product of research that would seem to justify any arch anti-federalist’s desire to cut federal funding of the academy.

What we face in this weak-mindedness is an ideologically determined humanistic commitment to opposing group hatred that disables objective consideration of the evidence. Boston University professor Richard Landes has identified the complex of intellectual constructs that manifest this disability, from “liberal cognitive egocentrism” to “masochistic omnipotence syndrome” to “human rights complex.” There is, too, a nexus of action and reaction that further enacts the disability. Hateful rightwing extremists like Geller, and countless of her type on social media, quickly, objectionably express themselves immediately upon the occurrence of an event like the marathon bombing, and a certain type of leftwing voice finds it more important to establish the Gellers as mistaken and beyond the pale than to respond directly and with clarity to the primary offense.

That is one source of the commitment to the case that diverts any lucid analysis of the case. A second source is the faith fallacy.

The faith fallacy exhibits itself in the pious profession that people’s faiths, even if they are not shared, should at least be respected. The faith fallacy is committed on the basis of granting the faith privilege.

The faith privilege is granted on the basis of the meta-level faith-teaching that affirms that all faiths, whatever their historical, theological, or doctrinal differences, are expressions of our deep need for connection with God and God’s love. Since most people consider these needs definitive of the human experience, and since we acknowledge the spiritual and emotional commitment of our faiths to be among the dearest and most necessary human beings may make, we grant a privilege to faith, an acceptance of the notion that all faiths are to be respected.

However, this privilege is granted not only from our common regard for fundamental human need and expression; in liberal democracies, it arises, too, from principles and traditions of tolerance. Liberal democracies seek to accommodate, as a definitive expression of their own systems, the multiplicity of what are actually, on close inspection, mutually exclusive faith doctrines.

What you believe is not what I believe, but you believe it piously, profoundly, and in love and devotion. I honor that. I bow down, not in my belief, but in respectful recognition of your piety.

That is the idea. That is the privilege. From that is committed the fallacy. One way to challenge the privilege is through aggressive assertion of the truth of one’s own faith and objection to the truth of another, but this is the disagreeable history humanity seeks to overcome. The other way to make the challenge is from the standpoint of agnosticism if not atheism. One must be able to disengage from the conviction of faith in order to acknowledge a faith doctrine as just another system of ideas subject to intellectual evaluation no less than any other.

Most of the current challenge to the faith privilege comes from what are sometimes called the new atheists. The late Christopher Hitchens was one. Sam Harris is another. Richard Dawkins is, too. A characteristic of the new atheism is that it is assertively so. It is not simply a personal determination as to the nature of the universe and spiritual being, but a determination to influence others and to oppose the influence of faith in the world. One may share the new atheism’s criticisms of faith while still recognizing that its aggressive proselytizing and unimaginative response to human spiritual nature provocatively engenders its own response.

One thing these new atheists have not shied from doing is what Bill Maher, a fellow atheist and an admirer, did, which is to assert that while all theisms are objectionable to them, at this time in history, one, Islam, plays a more problematic role on the world scene than do others. Very recently, with Hitchens now deceased, it is Harris and Dawkins who have been attacked from the same precincts on the left as were our focus earlier. Because Harris and Dawkins, not unlike Hitchens, are provocative, they lay themselves open in the manner that those who do not traffic in agreeable pieties will. Harris was recently roundly attacked by Glenn Greenwald, author of our initial quotation above. Various articles have been written now attacking the new atheists as flirting with Islamaphobia or for being already, perhaps, Islamaphobic.

In England, where domestic Islamic radicalism is more prominent than in the U.S., Landes’s  human rights complex has been more vocally reactive, and recent pronouncements, including on Twitter, by the abrasive Dawkins have generated a particular response from those who cry Islamaphobia. Harris has offered a longer refresher on the integrity of his reasoned arguments against the systems of ideas called faiths and shorter responses to the name calling against him from Greenwald.

There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it.

It requires only slight capacity for empathy to imagine that the past nearly twelve years have composed the lives of good people of Islamic faith in the United States with difficulty, uncertainty, and even self-consciousness. Americans have felt reasonable apprehensions, apprehension does not reason, and there are low, mean elements who will draw out the greater darkness loitering in any shadow. But to argue that those conditions, rather than the current problematic stage in the development of Islam, is the danger we face presents a case of willful blindness.

As it happens, whatever David Sirota wished, the people behind the Boston Marathon bombing do appear to have been motivated, apart from sheer human dysfunction, by the kind of Islamist extremism that robs its adherents of the most fundamental human sympathy.

As it also happens, there was an interfaith service held last week to salve the wounds of the Boston community. President Obama attended. The Imam originally invited to participate, representing Islam, from The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, was later disinvited when Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick was reminded of the center’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood founded Muslim-American Society, which has a record of anti-Semitic statements and statements advocating jihad.

This also happens to be recorded, in the FBI’s 2012 report on hate crimes in America. For 2011, the tenth year after 9/11, the FBI recorded 6,222 hate crime incidents involving 7,254 offenses. Of those, 18.2 % were religiously-based. Of the religiously-based hate crimes recorded in the United States in 2011, 13.3 % were against Muslims. In the nation outside of Israel widely judged to be the most welcoming to Jews of any in the world, 62.2% of recorded anti-religious hate crimes were against Jews.

We can all judge, amid the general human capacity for bias and hate, what is the state of any Islamaphobia in the United States. You might judge it, with me, all things considered – and in contrast to the Jewish record of terrorism over the past decade – remarkably low.

The first sentence of the second paragraph of the U.S.  Declaration of Independence begins,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How many single sentences have ever contained such wisdom? Still, there are many who have and will misconstrue it. During battles over the civil rights derived from human equality, there have always been those who point out the unequal apportionment of ability amongst human beings, mistaking the equality of human dignity and worth – regardless of physical difference – for human capacity. The “pursuit of happiness” is a wondrous and open phrase, coming right after liberty, expressing all of the existential uncertainty and freedom of a life to make of itself what it can. All of the specifically enumerated rights of the U.S. Constitution have one general purpose – to support that pursuit of happiness, over and over again in every individual life. Every individual holder of a life gets to choose, how he or she will, for good or ill, the ideas that will motivate and direct that life toward happiness, however the holder may perceive it – ideas including those of faith. The all men are created equalphrase – equal whether white or black or yellow or red, tall or small, brilliant or dull, swift or slow – is not an all ideas are created equal phrase. Neither the U.S. Declaration of Independence nor human reason self-evidently affirms that equality.

Call it a doctrine, a philosophy, a theory, a dialectic, an enlightenment, an ideology or a faith – it is a set of ideas, which may be the basis of acts in the world, subject to reason and evaluation, to acceptance, indifference, or rejection. No one who rejects a set of ideas on a reasoned basis, including a faith, should be calumnized as a bigot or hater the way we would condemn those who hate because of nature. Those who do simply fail to make their case in every way. They name call instead of reason. They substitute smugness for the product of reason.

Typical of the convention, the piety, the privilege, President Obama, the day the manhunt was brought to a close, praised the nation as one in which “we welcome people from all around the world — people of every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe.” Well, this is true and good, but once again it grants the privilege; it lumps ethnicity, an immutable state of nature, with faith, a voluntary state of mind. We should welcome the people, but we need not welcome the ideas. Each of us is free to pursue happiness holding to whatever set of non-threatening ideas may please; each of us is free to tell the other that he is wrong and to tell him how and why.

No faith, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others commit their lives and pray to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, including that of faith, must earn our respect and not be granted the privilege of unthinking and uncritical acceptance.

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7 thoughts on “The Boston Marathon Bombing and The Faith Privilege

  1. Odd. I clicked on the link for those “those who inflame every developing circumstance and wage jihad against jihad,” and each piece I saw on the page (at Pamela Geller’s site) seemed to be reasonable, not fitting your description. I don’t think it makes your case to be so broad as to link to an entire Web site, as opposed to pieces or posts that back up you claim, unless you actually feel that each item in it supports your contention.

    1. I think that’s a fair comment. My intent was to indicate the person, not a specific example of her inflammatory efforts. Just scrolling down, though – particular events and issues aside – one finds common use of terms like “fascist,” “media lapdogs,” “enemedia.” Those offer one kind of example of what I mean by inflammatory. That is not a thoughtful and responsible voice.

      Thanks for your further comments.

  2. Brilliant, Jay. Not only the writing…. but, also , the thinking.



    thank you for writing this.

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