Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarneav surely didn’t expect to destroy America/Christianity/The West with a few kitchen utensils. Nonetheless, they gave their lives to strike feeble blow. Why?
It starts with hatred. By bombing us they express their anger and encourage Muslims to feel and express anger; by bombed them in return, we create more anger and hostility. This is the goal. The worst thing we could do, from Tamerlan’s perspective, is to forgive; to not respond with violence.
Hatred is necessary, because without hatred, there is understanding and communication. These might sound like good things to you and I, but to the faith of Islam, and thus those who identify with Islam, they are poison.
This is not because Islam is a religion of violence. The next time someone repeats that ridiculous canard, ask them to look up what religion the Hutu were in 1994. It is because Islam is a functioning monotheism. The violence is really incidental: Islam neither profits from, nor is it particularly debilitated by it. Islam, as a faith, can survive any number of invasions, any display of military might, any amount of bombs and bullets. What it cannot survive is modernity.
To understand why Islam cannot be modernized, it is helpful to understand what happened to Christianity when it was modernized. The fundamental difference between Islam and contemporary Christianity is the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that event, you would have been hard-pressed to find any significant social differences. Pre-Reformation Catholicism had everything we complain about in Islam: church/state integration, religious law, violence against reformers/heretics/pagans, and so on.
Catholicism was at that time an all-encompassing world view, in the same sense that we now consider the Standard Model of physics. Sure, there are people who don’t share that outlook, but they know they are in the minority: they are aware that they are outside the mainstream and that their ideas require special defense or explanation. In Dark Age Europe, that was true of atheists and scientists. Their arguments, papers, and books are all wrapped with disclaimers and couched in the hypothetical: “Just imagine if what we all knew wasn’t true…”
Islam, as a pre-modern faith, is also an all-encompassing world view. Science, philosophy, other religions, even empirical evidence must necessarily give way to the truths of the Koran. The point of passing Sharia laws is to publicly demonstrate adherence to this truth; to declare society’s total commitment to the faith. It is not that Muslims want the irrational or harmful effects of Sharia law; it is that they want to maintain the totality, the purity, of their world-view. To allow mundane concerns (such as fairness, effectiveness, or simple practicality) to intervene would be admitting that there is another path to truth. And once you have multiple paths to truth, the gig is up.
Christianity discovered this during the Reformation. Having freed theology from the constraint of the chair of St. Peter, they quickly discovered they had freed it from any restraint. Sects proliferated with abandon; science and reason moved in, winning territory with empirical evidence and logic.
It should be no surprise that democracy flourished in this environment. The currency of democratic governance is reasoned debate; if a priest can simply invoke divine authority, then there is no room for debate. But if you need to convince your fellow citizens with rhetoric (rather than violence or authority), then empirical evidence and logic are really, really handy. Athens and Rome, both ancient democracies, were also polytheistic: this is not a coincidence. When there are many gods, there are many paths to truth and goodness, which leaves room for argument. Your clever new idea can’t be shouted down by the priesthood as immoral simply because it disagrees with doctrine, because other people might disagree with their doctrine too.
A truly monotheistic religion, meaning a complete and encompassing world-view, is incompatible with democracy, science, and modernity. Christianity survived its conflict with modernity by effectively ceasing to be monotheistic. There are many theologians, then and now, who view this as essentially defeat. As much as I disagree with their efforts to re-impose theocracy, I do agree with their diagnosis: Christianity is a pale shadow of its ancient glory. It has been reduced to a personal feel-good New Age marketing scheme.
Post-Reformation Christianity is, essentially, polytheistic, albeit the boring kind. Where the Greeks had pantheons of imaginative gods with fabulous names, Protestantism just has one name for many slightly different gods. While each sect adheres only to its own vision, society as a whole respects all of the various definitions of God – which amounts to social polytheism. You can’t simply shout down gay marriage as immoral, because some Christian priests actually support gay marriage.
Understandably, the Imams do not want to watch Ramadan turned into the biggest shopping day of the year, or the daily call to prayer set to Top-40 muzac. They would like to keep their actual functioning monotheism, thank you very much. The only way they can do this is by rejecting modernity. But rejecting modernity is hard: young people, in particular, like TVs, the internet, vaccines, and all that jazz.
Therefore, the contact between the West and Islam must be cut off, or at least poisoned, so that every idea that creeps in can be rendered impotent against the doctrine of the faith. A permanent state of war, or at least violence, tags every broadcast, every speech, every comment from the West with the red of blood. Think of terrorism like a vaccine: it’s not strong enough to kill the society, but it produces angry anti-bodies that immunize it against foreign ideas.
In this sense George Bush played right into radical Islam’s hands. This should be no surprise, since it is also radical Christianity’s hands: the Dominionists don’t want rapprochement with different ideas anymore than the Islamofascists do. Barrack Obama, with his speeches about understanding and co-existence, is the worst foe the Imams could imagine.
In another sense Bush only did the inevitable: capitalist economies exist to exploit markets, and the Middle East is a market for both buying and selling. As Will Durant noted, whenever a market has been closed to a commercial empire, violence has ensued. He was speaking of American-Japanese relations in 1935 (and we all know how that turned out), but he might as well have been speaking of the East India Company, Admiral Perry, Dole Fruit Company, or Standard Oil of California. When King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud took those gold coins, Islam’s fate was sealed. It would be the irresistible course of history: we would buy and sell. And because we would buy and sell in a modern market, Arabia must become modern. And modernity… is incompatible with true, socially enforced monotheism.
So here we are. Our capitalist economy will not allow us to ignore Arabia; their religious philosophy must necessarily rebuff us. We can try to be nice and understanding, but that just makes things worse; they can try to modernize, but only by surrendering their essential identity as a culture and as individuals. Tamerlan wasn’t just angry over our infidel ways; he was angry because he could not adapt to them and remain true to himself. It is hard enough for immigrants; imagine how much harder when the nature of modern society challenges your entire identity. Fundamentalist Christians struggle with the same problem (look at the recent defections from the Westboro Baptist Church), and, by golly, some of them turn to violence too.
Tamerlan achieved his goal: he chose a course of action that would maintain his identity as a Muslim (a true Muslim, not some wishy-washy reformist moderate). That this required his death should not be viewed as a deterrent; for would not the loss of his identity be a kind of death? And he saved his brother from the infidel, too. A double win. That America now seethes with hatred for Islam is just icing on the cake; it was hardly Tamerlan’s top priority, if he thought about it at all. This was a personal act; the social, political, and religious aspects are merely context. But that context assures us we will see more personal acts like this. And not all of them will be from Muslims – there are plenty of Christians who still have not surrendered to modernity (the Amish are only one example; the entire Catholic hierarchy is another, and what about those White Power guys?). Few of those will choose violence, but then only a tiny fraction of Muslims choose violence. Most just suffer in silence, with the occasional irrational cheer when the underdog scores a hit.
What can committed secularists do? The worst thing possible, from the terrorist’s point of view: understand. Persevere with appropriate responses, eschew jingoism and over-reaction, and keep making cool stuff that other people want. Islam is in its death throes; if it takes 100 years to reform at the cost of millions of lives, it will still be 300 years quicker and less bloody than the Protestant Reformation.