Richard Elliott takes a closer look at a common false premise.
At the time of writing, all charges for the acts of terrorism which occurred in Boston over the last week have been attributed to the Tsarnaev brothers, Dzhokhar and (the now-deceased) Tamerlan, two siblings hailing from the republic of Chechnya. In other words, the two attackers hail from the North Caucasus: how much more Caucasian can you get?
There exists a misunderstanding which percolates the popular press which must be further elaborated upon: a misunderstanding of the links between race and religion. This percolation rots much discussion from the head down, with very few parties coming out with their hands clean of it. The tabloid right wing is often the most guilty of this misunderstanding, going at lengths to indiscriminately lump together immigrants – ‘brown-skinned people’ – and in general those who aren’t white middle class nationals, jumping to label these people Muslim. Likewise, much of the supposedly more enlightened left wing press often outright identify criticism of radical Islamic practice, and the inferential nature of speculation as to where the source of acts of terror such as the incident in Boston has originated, as ‘racism’, or being ‘racist’.
Almost exactly a year ago today on April 28th, 2012, Sam Harris produced a (somewhat poorly worded, in my view) essay on the subject of airport security checks, which can be read in its original here. In the piece, Harris contended that to utilise rationally considered inferences, particularly with reference to contemporary geopolitics, when profiling for security checks would be most effective in combating attempts to instigate acts of terrorism. The intention of Harris’ piece was to stop worrying about hyper-political correctness, and single out those who looked more likely to be radical Muslims than, say, old Quaker couples. The piece attracted much vitriolic commentary in response, accusing Harris of being a ‘racist’, or an ‘Islamophobe’. This kind of false premise permeates the mainstream press and, as a corollary, the vox populi. Harris’ piece made the considerable defence of his own position within the piece itself that were the IRA still at their height and a young Irish male were boarding a plane, it would be common sense to profile this person using an inductive inference based on the contemporary geopolitical sphere. Radical Islamism as a terrorist force, when one leaves theology aside and looks at its social implications, must be viewed, at least in part, as a geopolitical movement akin to the IRA, only more international in scale.
It may be very possible that the media are jumping the gun on the possibility that these two young radical Muslims (which is what, so far, they have been described as by the press across the political spectrum) saw themselves as being religiously inspired: but can you blame them? I would challenge the reader to name from immediate recollection a single contemporary geopolitical terrorist instance, instigated by individuals or a movement, which doesn’t use radical Islam as its mandate. I cannot think of a single one (after a second consideration, I recalled the case of the terrorist Anders Breivik in Norway, who also happened to claim his calling to terror and murder from a religious fundamentalist mandate, although in his case it was a perverted form of Christian nationalism). The inverse of this challenge, which is for the reader to consider examples of where radical Islam is the mandate for acts of terrorism, allows dozens of examples spring to mind without difficulty to even those with a shallow knowledge of international affairs.
The race card is too often played where it isn’t warranted, in cases of religiously inspired terrorism, and likewise it is very important to distinguish any form of religion from any form of race. And before anyone would contend that the thrust of this article is to single out Islam, it only does so by reference to the contemporary geopolitical debate: had this act of terror happened in the 1960’s, it would be induced that the fundamentalist followers of Judaism would be considered to be the most likely group to have birthed the suspects. The same would be the case during the 1930’s; with the rise of fascism followers of the Catholic faith would possible have been singled out.
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings of last week, the inductive inference appears (so far) to have been right. It is the reliability of inductive arguments when applied empirically which give them their pre-emptive strength. To be assumptive about race is a misnomer. To be assumptive about some parts of religion, dependent on the geopolitical situation at large, is often very valid.