The green bomb

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The New York Times Magazine has a piece on the Iranian bomb and Islamic attitudes toward use of extreme measures in battle. In Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam Andrew Wheatcroft suggests that the Islamic attitude toward battle and war lagged the West in regards to a transition to rational and utilitarian paradigm in theory and practice. In other words, medieval values of valor and courage as opposed to victory at all costs persisted longer in the world of Islam than in Christendom, to the disadvantage of Muslim powers after 1500. So it is interesting to see how some Muslim scholars are now rationalizing barbarities, and how most Muslims now accept suicide bombers as martyrs. I bring this up, because as an unbeliever

1) I am always struck by the enthusiasm that followers of “higher religion” have toward assailing or battling those with whom their disagreemants are on the smallest matters of creed or ritual interpretation (to the point where one wonders if the foot soldiers who die for the sake of the creed can even genuinely discern the differences for which they lay their lives down!).

2) …and yet, there is such slippery ease with which the clerics and intellectuals of said “higher religion” can re-interpret the propositions entailed by their beliefs when the situation warrants. When I was a child in the 1980s many of the more traditionalist Muslims would not accept the taking of pictures because it was idolatry, and yet now the most radical of the ghazis videotape themselves, and it seems clear that this media serves as a focal point of devotion and adoration!

I suppose from the perspective of the unbeliever the question is this: what is the structure and nature of religious beliefs which allows such plasticity which masks itself as rigidity? Consider that Islamic radicals kill ostensibly in the name of a traditional society, but in the process they sanction the usage of non-traditional tactics such as female suicide bombers! To me, the heart of the piece above is that Islamic scholars will expend a great deal of time rationalizing whatever suits their own ultimate needs, so the background implication that there is some true axiomatic logic which demands that a group of believers espouse a particular set of beliefs down a chain of propositions seems ultimately implausible. Though killing will continue in the name of small differences, those differences are themselves subject to the contingencies of the age.

Addendum: Of course, remember that there is a difference between what people believe and what they believe they believe, and what they say motivates and what truly motivates them. Such considerations need to move past the simple analyses of the past such as Freudianism or Marxist materialism, but there various vectors can I think eventually help in constructing a model of the mind as it moves through the social and physical universe.


  1. Which is why I advocate simple control theory: Don’t let the extremists win. If they see that extremism is a losing strategy, Muslims will come up with an alternate ideology on their own.

  2. actually, my own focus would be on the “moderates.” i think the moderates are shifted over the nutty side too much, so the “extremists” are bumped over further than they would be….

  3. Belief in God seems to be a product of the emotional rather than the rational mind. As such, it can encompass anything from love and devotion on the one hand to fear, hatred and rage on the other. I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically good about it. Conversely, I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically good about the rational mind either. It seems to me that “you pays your money and you takes your choice”. 
    Given a choice I would rather belong to a group that preached “love thy neighbour” than “random human sacrifice”. But if I came to believe that a neighbouring group saw my anhilation as their route to eternal bliss then I would be prepared to reconsider. One cannot divorce religion from basic human instincts. Fear of other groups and what they might be plotting is always going to be a factor. 
    Religion serves a purpose by organising and controlling belief. It provides a set of principles around which people can rally. Perhaps more importantly though, it provides a social hierarchy which ambitious individuals can climb. Those at the top are probably motivated by very different ideals than those at the bottom. What’s a little reinterpretation of principles if it helps the cause? 
    Whether one is fighting for King and Country, or for one’s faith, the same emotions come into play. The leaders have to persuade the followers that their sacrifice is necessary for the good of the group. You can try reason, but emotion is always going to be a more powerful motivator. That’s why the foot soldiers tend to be young. The older one gets, the more cynical one becomes. 

  4. Just a quibble, but I don’t think that it’s rational and utilitarian to go for “victory at all costs”.

  5. I don’t see any inherent contradiction between those advocating a traditional society as the end result and the utilization of non-traditional means in the run-up to that. For example: Alfred Rosenberg idolized the soil and saw agrarian society as the epitome of goodness, but he had no issue with developing massive industrial capabilities in order to defeat Germany’s enemies, at which point they would tear down all the industry and bring about their agrarian peasant society. 
    That’s why the foot soldiers tend to be young. The older one gets, the more cynical one becomes. 
    No, “foot soldiers” tend to be old because of a multitude of reasons: 
    1. Military organization requires a large amount of lower ranking personnel. Not all can advance to higher levels of the hierarchy, since its size gradually decreases as you move up the ranks, so they get out. Not only that, many simply join the military for a short enlistment to get the benefits, like college money, and then get out. This leads to a very dynamic force, where, in many cases, 70% of new recruits at any one time will be out of the military within 4 years or so. 
    2. With increased age generally comes decreased physical abilities. 
    3. The military limits the age of new recruits to the early 30s, regardless as to how many would join up who are older. 
    4. The military actively works to get rid of people who have been in for more than 20 years (those who are usually aged between 38 and 44). 
    When all this is put together, you get a very young military force. 
    Just a quibble, but I don’t think that it’s rational and utilitarian to go for “victory at all costs”. 
    Victory is perfectly rational and utilitarian… I can think of very few situations where defeat would be an overall positive for whoever is fighting…

  6. I might point out that the alleged Iranian bomb is a rather peculiar entree to this topic, since the public line of the Iranian government in every forum has been: we’re not making a bomb, we don’t want bombs, we can’t gain from their use, they are against Islam, the age of atom bombs is over, we believe in atoms for peace, etc. If one is looking for Muslim scholars who publicly promote the use of WMD, one has to look to Salafi-jihadis like al-Suri, al-Qaeda talking heads who promote it on the basis of an eye for an eye, and so forth.

  7. A religion, let’s say a literate high religion, consists of a.) a big messy scripture which is a hodgepodge of possibilities; b.) a considerable number of contrary interpretive traditions, all of which can have their own authority; c.) a hodgepodge of local practices, many of which are “corrupt” from an originalist POV, and which vary greatly even within a single interpretational community; d.) elite authoritative organizations which sometimes approach state-like power, sometimes are absorbed by the state, and sometimes are a counterforce to the state. 
    From a naturalist point of view, these are all concrete things functioning according to their own laws. The believers believe that there’s a central essence, but outside observers don’t need to think that, and really shouldn’t. The nature of a religion at a given time is based on what c. and d. do, not on what’s written in a. and b.  
    A. and b. do constrain c. and d. somewhat, but it’s unwise to exaggerate that. What we’re really talking about here is the concrete forms c. and d.  
    A look at the heretical and lax forms of Islam (Indonesian syncretism, Ismaelis, Allawis, etc., plus Islam-based heresies like Baha’i and the Druze) shows that Islam really can be very flexible. A look at American Christianity would say the same, and Russian Christianity has produced the most amazing heresies. 
    Among the Protestant forms coming out of the Reformation were, from a scriptural standpoint, were many very extreme heresies. But they thrived. The first place to look is in the local practices and various powerful groups around 1500, not in the ideas or religious essences or scriptures. 
    And the same for the future of Islam.

  8. To clarify, most heresies perish or are marginalized. But the success of, e.g., Calvinism should not blind us to the fact that it was, scripturally or traditionally speaking, an extreme heresy, not much like anything that went before.

  9. Arcane, I think you’ve missed my point. “Victory is perfectly rational and utilitarian…”: yes, but not “at all costs”.

  10. Hmmm… our London Tube bombers were definitely young and idealistic. I’m sure the same was true of the 9/11 bombers. That really was the point I was trying to make. 
    Granted, conventional armies may be structured differently but stateless warriors cannot afford the overheads. Their military objectives are (a) to keep the elite safe and (b) to maximize the impact per footling casualty. The leaders are no fools. They know they cannot win a conventional war – at least, not unless they acquire a powerful enough state. In the meantime terror is their most effective tactic. Suicide bombers are particularly effective as they are hard to defend against. From the perspective of the leaders, the tactics are a rational response to a difficult challenge. (The cause on the other hand is plain wacko…) 
    Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on Islam, but I do know that in terms of numbers (1.4 billion?) it is a very successful ideology. It has also been reported as the fastest growing of the major world religions. Its spread throughout the Middle East and Asia was in large part due to military conquest. That was in the past but even today it must the source of some shame to many Muslims that the most powerful countries are (nominally at least) Christian. Worse yet, the Christians are supporting the Jews who are holding Palestine. Put yourself in their shoes. OK, you might say, we Muslims have our differences. But we are a lot better than the other lot. What we want is something to cheer about. What we want is a leader who can return us to our glory days. That leader has not come yet. Maybe he never will. But what if he did? 
    Returning to the subject of young soldiers, I am reminded of the words of the Paul Hardcastle song: 
    In 1965 Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war, but it wasn’t. 
    It was different in many ways, as so were those that did the fighting. 
    In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26… 
    In Vietnam he was 19. 

  11. it is a very successful ideology. It has also been reported as the fastest growing of the major world religions.  
    two points 
    1) be cautious about perceiving it as an ideology in the totality, for some it is, for others it is a customary channel for their religious impulses 
    2) i suspect christianity is actually faster growing because of africa

  12. Paul, 
    I thought you were speaking about the military in general, nut just non-state armies. But then, even though you’re quick to differentiate them, you’re also quick to use them as examples by citing a silly song…

  13. “Belief in God seems to be a product of the emotional rather than the rational mind.” 
    Nah. The rational mind has sensitive pattern detectors, that can find even weak correlations between stimuli and rewards. Once a correlation has been detected, the mind becomes even more sensitive to future reinforcement. Experiments show that this process works in a wide range of animals. 
    This is usually a great good, allowing us to learn from infrequent events, or in the presence of a lot of noise. However as the level of abstraction goes up, correlations become smaller, data becomes noisier, and the mind is more likely to lock-in to spurious deductions. Probably there are protective mechanisms to dampen this response “in the wild”, but as human brains and technology developed, rewards were pushed above the noise floor at progressively more rarified levels of abstraction. This is consistent with the progression from gods of hunting and of fertility, to gods of planting and of war, and ending with an baroque array of patron saints.

  14. “what is the structure and nature of religious beliefs which allows such plasticity which masks itself as rigidity?” 
    _Are_ religious beliefs unique in this regard? I don’t think so. I mostly stay out of religious arguments, but I get into lots of this-worldly arguments, and “plasticity” would be a very kind characterization of the shiftiness and hypocrisy I run into all the time. I think you could say the same thing about political party beliefs, as shown by the recent Mark Foley brouhaha launched by the same partisans who, a few days later, paid a fond farewell to the late Congressman Gerry Studds. 
    Lenin said it best: The big question is “Who? Whom?”

  15. steve, good point. i guess the main distinction here is that many people put religious beliefs on a particular pedestal. politics is am messy, cynical and instrumentalist game. there is quite a bit of politics in religion, but many people presume that fundamentally religion transcends this. i am skeptical, but sometimes i do speak as if the assumption held.

  16. A look at the heretical and lax forms of Islam (Indonesian syncretism, Ismaelis, Allawis, etc., plus Islam-based heresies like Baha’i and the Druze) 
    (end threadjack)

  17. er. i was just objecting to “lax”, not “heretical”. Meant to bold that bit above.  
    you may all now return to substantive discussion.

  18. Well, my belief is that religious laxness will save the world. The Aga Khan strikes me as nicely lax. If I am wrong, I guess I’m wrong.

  19. In the context of the post above, the religious beliefs are actually political beliefs in god-language. Nuclear policy, diplomacy, and war-making are inherently political topics. On more personal issues, like inheritance, adultery, or food-taboos, religious arguments are often less plasitc (or plastic in a different way). 
    Some religious leaders recognize how politics can corrupt religion. Probably why Sistani doesn’t like the Iranian model, and why old-time US evangelicals used to stay away from politics.

  20. Arcane, the U.S. Army has shifted the maximum age up to 42 – ; . But that’s recent.

  21. The Aga Khan strikes me as nicely lax. 
    The Aga Khan is the head of the Nizari community, but not of all Ismailis. The other big one is my community, the Bohras. The primary differences in doctrine are 1. disagreement on whether the Imam (the Aga Khan) has returned from seclusion, and 2. interpretation of the dictum that the return of the Imam will make all religious practices “non-compulsory”. There’s a very smart Nizari who blogs at Islamicate who can probably shed more light on their doctrine. Part of my objecction above was also on their behalf, because they don’t consider themselves lax, but rather enlightened.  
    Since Nizaris outnumber Bohras such as myself 10-1, I really have no cause to complain about the fact that most people assume Ismaili = Nizari.

  22. re: “lax,” the term is like saying tibetan buddhism is “debased.” says who?

  23. Lax is good! Strict is bad! Strict Christians would stone adulteresses and witches!  
    OK. Rather than calling certain people “lax Muslims” and “lax Christians”, I’ll say “true Muslims” and “true Christians”. OK? Or do I have to go all PC and say “type A” and “type B” just to make everyone happy.

  24. Aziz, are you the same blogger that Robert Spencer was so upset about referring to him as “Roobart Sbunsar”? To me his over-reaction to that slight against what he does know of Arabic seems to indicate a sensitivity to his larger lack of knowledge of it.

  25. While everyone is busy debating the minutiae of Islam (fundamentalist and moderate), nukes in the hands of suicide bombers etc., consider the following scenario which makes all the theological hair splitting moot. And unnervingly enough, it is plausible and even probable. 
    One successful coup in Pakistan and a nuclear powered Islamic fundamentalist state will come into being overnight -along with a well trained conventional army to boot.

  26. Ruchira, at one point I was assured that Americans were “guarding” the Pakistani facilities. Strictly scuttlebutt, of course. Musharraf’s relationship to the US (and Afghanistan, and al Qaeda, and the Taliban….) is very, very complex. whatever cooperation he gives us is not really voluntary. 
    I agree that this is really the most worrisome single possibility. The fact that we don’t seem to be officially worried about it much means …. what?

  27. …perhaps that there isn’t much we could do about it, publicly. So that publicly, officially worrying about it wouldn’t do much good.

  28. The PR aspects of the publicly-presented military-foreign policy nowadays are extremely bothersome. A lot of administration supporters seem to be supportive strictly on a “trust me” basis.

    One successful coup in Pakistan and a nuclear powered Islamic fundamentalist state will come into being overnight -along with a well trained conventional army to boot.
    i am skeptical that said fundamentalists could actually take over the whole ‘state.’ it says something about the pakistani army that musharraf is a dog owning gin drinker who is an avowed admirer of ataturk.

  30. The lower ranks of the officer corps are the place to look, especially if there are a lot of crypto-fundamentalists in the enlisted ranks.

  31. The PR aspects of any military/foreign policy in the world now are going to be extremely bothersome. There will be loud voices for doing more and loud ones for doing less, whatever we do. 
    I can’t think of a public move by the U.S. that would save Pakistan from the Islamist coup that concerns Ruchira. So I am not disturbed that the Administration is not making newsworthy public pronouncements on the subject.

  32. I am concerned that their entire policy is governed by the need to make noise and get votes, and I have no confidence that they are doing the right thing silently behind the scenes. And I see no reason for anyone else to have confidence that they are doing so either.

  33. But before attacking Administration policy on Pakistan vis-a-vis a possible islamist coup, I would want to know some substantive thing that the Admininistration is not doing but should be, or is doing but should not be. I would hate to attack it on the basis of, “I don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it must be awful!” or “They’re not doing enough in public, but I don’t know what they should be doing instead.”  
    We have been getting at least some material help from Pakistan on the intelligence side – it occasionally makes the news – and haven’t made an enemy of India in the process; which tells me that we’ve been getting something right on the diplomatic side. I would love to know ways to improve upon it. 
    I do not agree that the whole policy is designed to “make noise and get votes” – whether it is good policy or not. Of course, successful politicians do try to get votes, else they would not be successful politicians, but that doesn’t mean they don’t really support their own major policies.

  34. At 3:11 I didn’t attack US policy. I did question it, but the administration’s track record on other things really justifies questioning. My question was pretty open ended; it did allow the possibility that the right thing is going on behind the scenes. But who can have any confidence?

  35. And I wasn’t defending it. Specifically, if I understood you, you asked, “What does it tell us that the Administration is not officially worrying about an islamist coup in Pakistan?” To which my answer is, it’s not telling us much of anything, for good or for ill.

  36. 1. The possibility that they don’t talk about it because they can’t do anything about it is worrisome.  
    2. The possibility that they don’t talk about it because it’s under control (a possibility I mentioned) is reassuring. 
    3. The possibility that they aren’t talking about it because they’re not thinking about it is worrisome. 
    This is an administration that makes a tremendous amount of noise. Iran, N. Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba have all been fingered. Theoretically they’re out allies, but they seem to be playing a double game (they cut a deal with the Taliban, and they’re not really cooperating fully on nuclear proliferation.) 
    I’m picking up on Ruchira’s suggestion that this is something to think about. And I guess I’m suggesting that Pakistan strikes me as a much more serious problem than Venezuela, Cuba, or Syria.

  37. “Theoretically they (Pakistan) are our ally….”

  38. And I guess I’m suggesting that Pakistan strikes me as a much more serious problem than Venezuela, Cuba, or Syria. 
    pakistan has half the US population. and more than half the people in our age group. it is nearly an order of magnitude more populous than iraq….

  39. I do see a little on the subject in the State Department’s CRS report on US-Pakistani relations –  
    (page 18); apparently we have been training Pakistani air assault units for use against domestic terrorists, training Musharraf’s security detail, and assisting Pakistani police efforts. So it’s not total silence. But a page one Presidential speech along the lines of, “We don’t think Musharraf is strong enough to protect himself from a coup” would likely do more harm than good; and I am glad to see that we aren’t hearing that kind of “noise.”

  40. John – I was just being a goofball :) Wierdly, though I am muslim and fairly “non-lax” I think even I’ve bought into the perception that aggressively religious people are more “alarming” than “lax” ones. Dunno why. Maybe we just have an instinctual reaction to string beliefs. 
    TGGP, yeah that’s me. Robert claims that the “beh” letter should be read as “p” due to context. Hence, Sbunsar should be Spunsar. However there is a “pesh” letter which every Urdu speaking muslim would immediately recognize, yet he chose not to use, so I assume he was unaware of it, and this reflects his arabist blinders towards Islam.  
    Ah, and he is upset about Roobart, but I don’t buy his pronunciation of the “waw” character after the “r” one. At best he could be Rowbart with his spelling, but thats being generous.

  41. Yesterday’s missile strike on a tribal area madrassa fits with this discussion. In the region, locals say it was a US drone that fired the missile, with a PK gunship showing up 20 minutes later and ineffectaully shooting up a hillside. The PK gvt claims it was responsible for the attack, but it seems very unlikely, given that the gvt is supposed to sign a peace treaty with the tribals the same week. 
    This will certainly destabilize Musharraf’s regime, and also make it obvious that the US is directly engaging on PK soil, weakening Musharraf’s nationalist credentials. Short run gain for the US, long run pain?

  42. AP story –  
    Maybe, but it could as well have been deliberately timed before the treaty, “Yes, I want peace, but that doesn’t mean I’m tolerating this.” Letting an AQ training camp operate would also be destabilizing, more so than striking it. It’s very hard to gauge what it really means this early.

  43. Read the dawn stories, especially number two 
    Like many other residents, Sahibzada Haroon is convinced the seminary was bombed by US drones and Pakistan owned the air strikes up to cover up the whole incident and avoid embarrassment. 
    Absolutely. I have no doubt in my mind that it was done by the Americans and we are now making a futile attempt to cover it up,? he said.
    And worse: 
    There was no ?high-value target? or any foreign militant among those killed, local residents and government officials said. 
    And the MMA leader (also JI leader) repsonds with 
    alleged that the US attack was to pre-empt inking of an accord between Bajaur elders and the political administration in line with the agreement that was earlier reached between the military command and the militants in Waziristan agency. 
    He said bombing a seminary inside Pakistan?s territory was a clear declaration of war on the country but the army leadership out of cowardice to accept this challenge had taken the brunt on its own.
    None of this is good.

  44. Interesting, and thanks for the links! Though I also see, “Locals admitted that it also served as a meeting-point for militants waging ?jihad? against the US-led Nato forces in the neighbouring eastern Afghan province of Kunar,” and this is not so bad.