This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

Extremism – and its religious exoskeleton

Is it fair to openly ask questions about rigid religious ideology?

A short drive from my apartment in the Washington DC area is the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, a place sometimes unfairly labeled the “9/11 mosque.” Something like three thousand people attend that mosque and I would bet my bottom dollar that 99% of those who attend are good law-abiding citizens out to do their best like any other citizen, just as would be true of 99% of people who attend other types of religious services.

I completely disagree with those -- often fundamentalist Christians – who opposed the so-called “ground zero mosque”. I scoff at the pandering of politicians who promote fear mongering by claiming Sharia law is about to be implemented across the US (There is indeed fundamentalist law in the United States – but it springs from fundamentalist Christians. More on this at another time.)

The blanket stigmatizing of a block of people based on religion is flat wrong. I oppose such prejudice unreservedly.

A Washington Post article on September 19, 2011, entitled “An Uncomfortable Spotlight”, focused on the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque correctly implies that it’s wrong to draw conclusions about Muslims or anyone else based on “past associations.”

The Post article preceded the recent killing, by American forces, of a former cleric at the mosque, Anwar al-Aulaqi. Al-Aulaqi was less of household name when I began writing this piece, but my primary concern stands: The Washington Post piece gingerly muffled reality when it comes to violent extremists and the ideology that supports this extremism.

The Post piece described al-Aulaqi as a “radical.” A radical? To me, American communists are radicals - more likely to set fire to a joint than to a building with people inside. There’s radicalism, then there is outright terrorism.

One would not know it from the September 19 Washington Post article, but Anwar al-Aulaqi, was described by U.S. officials as a “planner and trainer for al-Qaeda” ( He has also been called “the bin Laden of the internet.” He was described as “extraordinarily dangerous” and “committed to carrying out deadly attacks against Americans worldwide.” The Washington Post’s use of the term “radical” is bowdlerizes the reality of this terrorist.

Another person alleged to have attended the Dar Al-Hiirah mosque was Nidal Hasan. He was described in the article as the “accused shooter” at Ft. Hood. “Accused shooter” simply does not convey what happened. Here’s what happened: in full view of many witnesses, Hasan engaged in mass murder: 42 casualties, 13 of whom died. The last thing some victims heard was Hasan yelling in Arabic “God is Great.”

We also should not forget Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhaszmi, both of whom hijacked the plane that crashed into the Pentagon The Post goes on to mention that “other” terrorism suspects also attended the mosque. The Post failed to mention that one of these “others” was convicted of plotting to kill President Bush.

The mosque’s articulate well-educated spokesperson, specifically hired to reassure the American public, states in the Post article that “there is no ideology or preaching, that somehow leads people to violent extremism.” The Post article implies that this assertion is valid, but is that assertion really valid? While I’m sure it’s true that most members of Dar Al-Hijrah are good citizens, there are indeed ideologies and preaching that do lead to terrorism.

Consider the now dead imam Anwar al-Aulaki, who preached at the mosque just prior to 9/11. Before he became a more open terrorism advocate, he long preached “conservative” Islamic views. The Post story describes the mosque as still “deeply conservative.” Now in American parlance, “conservative” might mean fiscal conservative or a believer in the views of Barry Goldwater, but at this mosque, “Women must enter through a back door so as not to be seen by men and they sit in a separate area.” When a female Fairfax County Supervisor came – invited -- before the mosque, a congregant jumped up and shouted, “There are no women allowed here.”

The Post also describes “fierce statements of support for the Palestinian cause.” Now …fierce. What does that mean? Well, at least in one instance, an imam (and not Al-Aulaki this time) made statements that could be interpreted as supportive of suicide bombings if authorized by Islamic religious leaders in Palestine. (For the record, I’m very skeptical about Israeli policy toward Palestinians – but that is a far cry from suggestion that suicide bombing may be justified in some circumstances).

I emphasize again: the vast majority of Muslims are good people. I don’t think Muslims, including those at this particular mosque, support suicide bombings or flying airplanes into buildings, or engaging in mass killing at a military base.

However, when the media uses expression like “radical” to describe religiously inspired hatred and terrorism, they are exposing their own timidity regarding reality: there is a darkness that lurks in extremely conservative religious ideology and this must be faced unblinkingly without soft-peddling the facts.

Terrorist values, and the resulting violent actions, are certainly not the values held by the vast majority of Muslims; but, in each case I’ve named, these exceptionally violent people saw their religion as central to their very existence. Not only were some of these terrorists willing to die for their beliefs but in the five instances I’ve named they were quite willing to kill for their religious beliefs.

These terrorists also shared a more widespread and rigid belief in the need for women to be controlled by males -- beliefs that sets up a rigid, dogmatic code of behavior, beliefs that erode the respect for our fellow humans, beliefs that, when followed to their conclusion, can justify violence – and indeed do justify violence in some minds.

Each of us have a responsibility to protest against dogmatic, hate-filled ideology. Liberals and conservatives alike need to openly discuss the rigidity inherent in the sort of worldview preached by imans like Answar al-Awlaki (even before he revealed himself as an outright terrorist).

Shouldn’t we all, both liberals and conservatives, face this valid question openly: does this religious rigidity spark in a small -- yet significant – number of people a dark, angry, judgmental attitude? Is it not reasonable to consider whether this rigidity -- given official recognition and sanction -- will play a significant role in contributing to a malicious worldview that justifies violence in the name of God? Cannot this small yet significant number of people find formal justification for violence in the words -- accurate words – that favor violence in numerous revered religious texts?

Rigidity – a rigidity that sets bizarre unbending personal standards -- can perhaps engender a self-loathing that manifests itself in the violent loathing of others. (Consider, for example, the fact that al-Aulaqi espoused adamantly conservative sexual views – yet was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes).

These terrorists are not merely lone nutcases. The have an entire worldview encasing their rigidity, encasing it with a supernatural ideology – hard as an exoskeleton.

What if we were to take a step back from all these ancient texts? And perhaps not treat them ever so gingerly as “conservative” and rather face them directly for what that accurately are: often misogynist, often violent, and, quite often, not very helpful to the goal of a more rational and compassionate world. There is a more compassionate worldview available, a worldview in which men, women -- all people -- are called upon to treat each other with compassion and understanding and acceptance of human instincts and frailties – even though this may well require the direct rejection of ancient texts.

The Washington Post, and American society as a whole, should not steer away from these valid considerations because it makes us uncomfortable. Just because fundamentalist Christians are prejudiced against Muslims does not mean we should ignore valid concerns regarding any religious ideology. At the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, we will continue to face such issues squarely, always espousing more compassion, more reason, more science, more understanding, and more honest discussion.

Sean Faircloth, is the Director of Strategy and Policy RDFRS U,S.. He is author of the upcoming book Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It. Advance copies are available in the RDFRS store in the link above. Faircloth served ten years in the Maine legislature. In his final term he was elected Majority Whip by his caucus colleagues. At the Secular Coalition for America Faircloth devised and led the Secular Decade strategic plan. Faircloth speaks widely on separation of church and state, the Constitution, and secular strategy.

Faircloth served as opening speaker for Richard Dawkins' Fall 2011 tour of the United States, and he will do so again in spring 2012.



Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the...

- - BBC News Comments

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The...

- - human rights first Comments

Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”

Update - Too crazy even for the...

Ed Kilgore - Political Animal Comments

update - too crazy even for the evangelical right
Barton’s Fall From Grace

David Barton says his documents prove that the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas - but do his sources check out?

Pussy Riot's closing statement

Cory Doctorow - BoingBoing Comments

Pussy Riot member Yekaterina Samutsevich has given a tremendous closing statement, which is a masterful summary of Russian oligarchy

Refuting Richard: Dawkins Doesn’t “Get”...

Graham Veale - Saints & Sceptics? Comments

Refuting Richard: Dawkins Doesn’t “Get” God

Witchcraft-based child abuse: Action...

- - BBC News Comments

The government has launched an action plan to tackle child abuse linked to witchcraft or religion in England.



The Religio-Industrial Complex v The...

Sean Faircloth - Comments

The Religio-Industrial Complex v The Innovators, Sean Faircloth @ The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012

Is America a Christian Nation? or One...

Sean Faircloth - Comments

s America a Christian Nation? or One Nation Under the Constitution? by Sean Faircloth

A Religious Military? Spiritual Fitness...

Sean Faircloth - 28 Comments

Sean Faircloth, speaking at Ft. Bragg, addresses the multimillion dollar "Spirituality Fitness Test" imposed by the U.S. Military.

Dawkins Foundation: Innovating for a...

Sean Faircloth - 46 Comments

Dawkins Foundation: Innovating for a Secular World. A Call to Action by Sean Faircloth, Madison, WI

Bullying, lies, and discrimination...

Sean Faircloth - 26 Comments

Sean Faircloth - Bullying, lies, and discrimination aren't "religious liberty"

Sean Faircloth: Do Something About the...

Sean Faircloth - 22 Comments

Sean Faircloth: Do Something About the Religio-Industrial Complex



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment