Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bill Vallicella on Islamist Beliefs and Islamist Actions

Bill Vallicella
Maverick Philosopher

My metaphysical friend, Bill Vallicella, has posted an excellent reflection on Professor Scott Atran's 'belief' that Islamist beliefs have no effect on Islamist actions, assuming that Atran's views have been adequately reported (and if one is doubtful, Bill adds, "substitute 'Atran*' for 'Atran'"). Whatever the resolution of that issue, here is Bill's analysis:
If we are to be as charitable to Atran as possible, we would have to say that he holds his strange view because he himself does not believe in the Muslim paradise and he cannot imagine anyone else really believing in it either. So Muslims who profess to believe in Paradise with its black-eyed virgins, etc. are merely mouthing phrases. What makes this preposterous is that Atran ignores the best evidence one could have as to what a person believes, namely, the person's overt behavior taken in the context of his verbal avowals. Belief is linked to action. If I believe I have a flat tire, I will pull over and investigate. If I say 'We have a flat tire" but keep on driving, then you know that I don't really believe that we have a flat tire.

Same with the Muslim terrorist. If he invokes the greatness of his god while decapitating someone, then that is the best possible evidence that he believes in the existence of his god and what that god guarantees to the faithful, namely, an endless supply of post-mortem carnal delights. This is particularly clear in the case of jihadis such as suicide bombers. The verbal avowals indicate the content of the belief while the action indicates that the content is believed.
Whatever Atran's views might actually be (and see this), Bill's analysis of the link between belief and action is significant, especially in the context of the rest of his post.

Not that I think Bill's position irrefutable: Islamists might be suffering from what the Left used to call "false consciousness," thinking they believe what they really don't believe. Indeed, this is the Left's view on Islamists.

But I know from experience that religious belief is real, regardless whether that belief corresponds to any real thing, and religious belief is a powerful motivator of action.

Update: Some statements by Islamists on paradise as motivation for martyrdom.

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At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I'm not a fan of Atran's perspective, which seems to subordinate, deliberately? or inadvertently - because of its policy or tactical orientation, ideological factors to others that are equally but more important to a full understanding; but it seems to me that he and his critics are talking past one another. In his response to Harris, Atran claims not to disregard ideology, but claims that ideology alone is not a very helpful predictor of Islamist violence - a pretty obvious point, since millions of Islamic believers dont commit violence against non-believers. What does constitute such a "predictor" of particular utility, in Atran's view, is whether someone (presumably sharing the ideology) also happens to be a member of an action-oriented affinity group, presumably not necessarily one dedicated to violent action against non-believers, but one which could be co-opted for that purpose and then be effective because its members collectively are adapted to action on behalf of organizational imperatives. Atran thus seems to assume the potential of Islamist ideology for violence against non-believers - in effect agreeing with Harris and Vallicella on the importance of Islamist ideology - but also to point to the ostensibly empirical fact that more is required to eventuate in violence and that among such "more" membership in a suitably indoctrinated social network.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree with your point that Islamic ideology alone can't explain Islamism. But Atran seems to me the mirror opposite of Robert Spencer -- as you might also agree. The one emphasizes action-oriented affinity groups, the other ideology. As you note, Atran assumes, but does not thematize, Islamic ideology's propensity for violence. Of course, to openly speak of ideological factors within Islam would be to lay oneself open to the charge of Islamophobia, not to mention the ruin of one's academic career.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:58 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

I guess my feeling is that Atran's perspective and work is useful if you are a policeman looking to narrow the field of potential suspects in an act of terrorism but that, as you say, he does seem to derogate Islamic ideology as a significant factor - an serious mistake in understanding and coming up with with plans for the larger strategic (rather than just the tactical) challenge, which is in part the existence of an enormous social network - Islam - that ideologically (and often practically) supports and creates the symbolic space in which the violence committed by the extremists becomes not just possible but likely.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...


Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I never said, nor ever implied that no one, much less jihadis, did not believe in Paradise. Indeed I have books and articles that experimentally probe what the beliefs are. Mr. Harris is, as often, simply being mendacious in order to senationalize his views. As to the philosophical analysis of "Atran*," let people jave their fun.

My rebuttal to Harris can be found on the evolutionary mag website "this view of life."

At 10:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Professor Atran's reference is now linked at "Here He Goes Again: Sam Harris's Falsehoods."

Readers are invited to investigate the issue further in Professor Atran's own words, including these, an explanation of what he says he said to Harris:

"What I actually said to him (as I have to many others) was exactly what every leader of a jihadi group I interviewed told me, namely, that anyone seeking to become a martyr in order to obtain virgins in paradise would be rejected outright."

Doubtless, this is the 'official' position of the jihadi leaders, but I don't believe them, and even if they aren't lying outright, this has little bearing on the appeal of a sensual paradise of eternal sexual delights, which is promised to martyrs and acts as a motive force no matter what leaders say.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I'm afraid that the appeal of sensual sexual delights is more a fantasy of thise who know little of suicide bombers than of what actually motivates them. Most Al Qaeda operatives, for example, have been married with children and never mentioned or implied virgins in Paradise as a motivation (Mohammed Atta was a peculiar exception). Over half of suicde bombers in the Lebanese wars were Christians, Tamil tiger suicide bombers have no sensual sense of Paradise, etc.

Scott Atran

At 4:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

While comparing suicide bombers of differing ideological backgrounds is of obvious interest, what quickly becomes noticeable is that the vast majority worldwide are Muslim. The delights of paradise are promised to Muslim martyrs, and these delights far exceed any earthly pleasures, whether or not a martyr is already married here on earth. Martyrs need not cite this promise, and they might also -- as did the jihadi leaders to whom you spoke -- deny the specific motivation as primary motive, but if one were to ask what awaits those who carry out "martyrdom operations," the promised houris and other pleasures of paradise would show up.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:10 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have interviewed Muslim suicide bombers (who misfired), would-be suicide bombers and those who jave sponsored suicide bombers (including some about to be executed for doing so, and so having nothing to lose) from Indonesia to Morocco. It is stunning that people can make genrralizations at odds with empirical facts eithout ever having studied these people (much less ever having met one) in any serious way.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

By "empirical," I presume you are referring to the answers provided by jihadis to your questions. Such empirical facts -- to the degree that the jihadis' answers can be believed -- depend upon the questions posed.

But we are talking about ideology, and Islamists certainly believe in a paradise of sensual pleasures. It is part of their ideology, makes death more acceptable, and serves as motivational factor.

The 'fact' that many do not explicitly cite it as a motivational factor stems from the motivation itself, for the paradox is that to admit outright such a selfish motive could be to shut oneself off from the paradise that one secretly desires.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:17 AM, Anonymous m said...

Mr. Atran, I'm not clear about your position on some of the issues here.

1) Would you agree that a belief in Paradise is a central and unambiguous tenet of Islam? That virtuous believers are rewarded by an afterlife in Paradise is, after all a central topic in the Quran -- and that the Quran is the literal word of God, as delivered to Mohammed His Prophet, is Islam's founding proposition.

2) Would you agree that those who engage in jihad are, generally speaking, devout Muslims?

3) Given 1) and 2), would you agree that it seems safe to assume that most jihadis believe in an afterlife in Paradise for the virtuous?

4) My understanding is that, according to a great deal of mainstream Muslim scholarship, for a warrior to die in the cause of jihad is considered sufficient evidence of personal virtue as to guarantee admission to Paradise. Is this incorrect?

5) Granted, belief in Paradise clearly is not sufficient to motivate most Muslims to become jihadis. But is it your position that, generally speaking, it is actually not a significant factor in the motivation of those who DO pursue jihad? Given everything listed above, I find this hard to understand.

I realize that you have found that belonging to "action-oriented social network, such as a neighborhood help group or even a sports team" is the "best predictor ... of a willingness to commit an act of jihadi violence", but clearly this is not sufficient, as scores of millions of people around the world belong to such groups, yet are not jihadis. The stubborn fact remains that far more Muslims seem drawn to this sort of behavior than any other group, and that does seem to call for some sort of exogenous explanation.

At 1:23 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Mr. Atran,

I didn't mean to comment anonymously; 'm' was a slip of the finger as I was filling out my name.

Malcolm Pollack

At 2:06 AM, Anonymous Al said...

A good summary of some of Atran's research from someone who has actually bothered reading his books.

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

''By "empirical," I presume you are referring to the answers provided by jihadis to your questions.''

When they say Islam permits them to engage in violence you believe them. When they say a person who engages in jihad for carnal delight would be denied entry to heaven...they are liars. Interesting.

''the paradox is that to admit outright such a selfish motive could be to shut oneself off from the paradise that one secretly desires.''

It's nice that you know what people 'secretly' desire. Really rigorous thinking here.

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Al wrote: "A good summary of some of Atran's research from someone who has actually bothered reading his books."

Al then offered a site that he did not link to, so here's the link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, the jihadis claim to be carrying out violence in the name of Islam even as they carry out violence in the name of Islam.

What's to doubt about that? They have a belief and act upon it, much as Bill Vallicella has proposed.

As for the hope of an afterlife as reward for proper conduct in this life, that seems pretty fundamental, even central, to Islam, so it of course plays a role in jihadi thinking. Malcolm Pollack has set forth the position that I would largely agree with. Do you disagree with his analysis?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They claim to be retaliating against Western crimes against Muslims. And don't bullshit by saying the afterlife 'plays a role in their thinking'. Of course it 'plays a role'. But that's not what you or Harris mean when you say it plays a role. You think it plays a huge (perhaps even the primary) role in their thinking.

There is a difference between stating 'someone believes x' and stating 'someone does y solely, primarily, or largely because of x'. Malcom's argument is invalid. You appear to believe that these people do what they do solely, primarily or largely because of their belief in an afterlife. But the jihadis state that a person who engages in terrorism in order to get to heaven would not get in so it is not the primary motivating factor. Apparently, you choose not to believe them. But you're quite happy to believe their other statements when they confirm your preexisting ideas. You're selectively picking the information you want to believe.

At 7:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, try using the euphemism "BS" -- or better yet, avoid vulgarisms and ad hominem intimations altogether. Don't be like Harris in that respect. I require courtesy of commenters.

The degree to which hope of an afterlife reward consciously plays a role differs from suicide bomber to suicide bomber, as it does from jihadi to jihadi generally. Other motives also play a role. And Atran has offered insights into how jihadi networks form and radicalization takes place.

But the hope of paradise and its pleasures explains why suicide bombing is more prevalent among Muslims. I think Malcolm's reasoning is valid.

We seem to have a fundamental disagreement, one that appears to anger you. Perhaps we'd better just agree to disagree.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Dear 'Anonymous' (why is it so frightening, by the way, to comment under your own name? At the very least, can't you come up with a distinctive pseudonym of some sort?),

Let's consider the psychological angle here.

Assume that, as you say, a jihadi -- even one who has died fighting bravely for the glory of Allah -- will indeed be banned from Paradise if it is revealed that his only motivation for fighting and dying was that fabulous personal reward in the hereafter.

Since all Muslims sufficiently devout to die for this cause will certainly be aware that if their motivation is pure they WILL be so rewarded (and because eternal bliss in Paradise is a pretty amazing deal), they will of course be playing an interesting inner game, where they must try to keep the whole Paradise thing on the back burner, even to themselves, while keeping an eye on the temporal cause.

Now imagine yourself to be such a person, awaiting execution -- and presumably, if things go smoothly for the next few hours or days, about to cash in on the Big Payoff. Are you going to blow the whole thing at the last minute by telling the infidel Scott Atran that your motivation was actually those dark-eyed virgins, all along?

At 2:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

This more recent blog entry might be of interest: Martyr Weddings.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Are you going to blow the whole thing at the last minute by telling the infidel Scott Atran that your motivation was actually those dark-eyed virgins, all along?'

No, because it's not your actual motivation. They believe God can read your mind so what they tell Atran is irrelevant. God will know if you're lying and you won't make it.

If you're suggesting that their motivations are really carnal and that they've managed to keep this secret even from themselves, I'd like to know how you know this. Because unless you have magic powers this looks like some pretty hilarious armchair psychologizing.

@Hodges: In the history of suicide bombing most suicide bombers were not Muslim. This is a relatively recent development. Your explanation for this development is not based on empirical psychology or the statements of the terrorists (in fact it actually goes against what the jihadists say). Your 'explanation' consists of an unargued assertion. The number of possible explanations for suicide bombings is vast. On what basis did you select your favorite hypothesis as the correct one?

From here your reasoning looks like this: 'Lots of suicide bombers are Muslims. Muslims believe in heaven. So Muslim suicide bombers blow themselves because of heaven!'
This is exactly as credible as arguing: 'Lots of criminals in America are black. Black people listen to violent hip hop. So black crime is caused by hip hop!'.

You're right that we have a fundamental disagreement. It is illustrated perfectly by Malcom's posts. Conservatives selectively interpret information to fit into their worldview even when their worldview is clearly absurd.

There are tons of quotes from jihadists which explicitly state that their motivation is not heaven or a desire to kill people just for being infidels. They are motivated by secular grievances. Studies by Atran, Pape & co only confirm this. But what do people like Malcom do when confronted this evidence? They say things like: '...they will of course be playing an interesting inner game, where they must try to keep the whole Paradise thing on the back burner, even to themselves...Are you going to blow the whole thing at the last minute by telling the infidel Scott Atran that your motivation was actually those dark-eyed virgins, all along?'

In other words: 'Of course they're lying! They just want sex after death dontyaknow?! They're even lying to themselves!' How do you know this? Magic!

At 4:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous (no pseudonym yet?), thanks for using less vulgar language this time. I appreciate your restraint.

If you want to know more about what my views are based upon, you can start with "Martyrs' Weddings: On Earth as in Heaven?," then search my blog for entries on Islamism.

You might also poke around on my blog looking at the sort of things I post on and what I say about them and determine for yourself whether the label "conservative" fits me.

I myself don't know . . . and don't really care.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:03 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...


Passing lightly over your fatuous generalizations about conservatives (who are no more prone than anyone else to "selectively interpret information"), I think there is some burden on you to explain, given the ordinary regularities of human nature, why the prospect of eternal bliss in the sumptuous Paradise described so fulsomely and repeatedly in the Quran would NOT provide substantial encouragement and motivation to an angry young man for whom the existence of such reward was not in doubt.

Muslims kill far more people each year than do any other variety of terrorists. Although all sorts of people have grievances, and are full of anger and resentment, the stubborn fact remains that in the modern world it is almost exclusively Muslims who resort to suicide attacks. A satisfying explanation for this distinction requires some exogenous factor that affects Muslims in particular. If Islamic ideology is not this distinguishing factor, then what is?

At 9:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historically, most terrorism was not carried out by Muslims.
If Islam was the primary motivation for jihadist terror we would not expect this to be the case.

If you're saying that Muslim attacks are more deadly, or that suicide bombing is more prevalent among Muslims than other groups, or that Muslim groups carry out more acts of terrorism than other groups at this point in history, your explanation still doesn't follow.

Another explanation is that Muslim groups are involved in more conflicts than other groups so naturally terrorism will be used as a tactic.Currently, the vast majority of terrorism that occurs in the West (America, Europe & Australia) is not done by Muslims. But in countries where there is a state of war (e.g. Israel/Palestine, Somalia etc) there are higher rates of jihadist terror.

Suicide bombing was not invented by Muslims and the history of non religious suicide bombing demonstrates that religious motivation is not required to carry out this action.

And as I've patiently repeating...if you want to understand someone's motivations you should pay attention to their statements and to what experts who have studied them say. And when you do that you will find a big difference between their stated motivation and between motivation you attribute to them through armchair speculation. I follow this point in more detail in the post about martyr weddings. I think it answers your question.


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