How to Tame Religious Terrorists [Good Life series]

Defeating an enemy such as politicized Islam is a multi-front battle—police, military, diplomatic, cultural, and philosophical.

Any fight is triggered by short-term, local disagreements. But long-term, generalized conflicts are always about abstract principles in collision. As with neo-Nazis, Communist revolutionaries, violent environmentalists, bomb-the-government anarchists, and others—our conflicts with them are intellectual in origin.

Terrorism is first a mindset—committing to a cause that includes a willingness to kill anonymous others indiscriminately.

Put yourself inside the head of a terrorist. You must learn not to see other humans as individuals: It is my group versus your group. You must not be open to reasonable debate and peaceful resolution: I shut off discussion and commit myself to fear and killing. You must squash any concern for justice: I am willing to kill indiscriminately. In most cases, you must decide that your own life on Earth is insignificant: I am willing to die for the cause.

Politicized Islam is now widespread in many parts of the world. It is well-funded and well-organized. It has many articulate spokesmen and sympathizers. And it has proved willing and able to execute audacious terrorist attacks.

How does one defeat an enemy with such a mindset?

In the West, we have done it before. We had our religious fanatics—but we tamed them. We can learn from our earlier success and apply its lessons to the present crisis.

Not too long ago in history, the Christian world was riven by bitter and nasty internal conflicts. Persecution, torture, and widespread slaughter happened everywhere that Christians encountered internal dissent and external disagreement.

This was not an accident, given Christian doctrine. Both intellectuals and activists were acting in accordance with their best interpretations of Scripture and the teachings of a long tradition of Christian authority.

Consider this roster of big names: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine and Aquinas are the two most important thinkers in the Catholic tradition, and Luther and Calvin are the two most important thinkers in the Protestant tradition. All four are without exception entirely in favor of killing those who disagree with them.

And Christians could cite Scripture and the words of Jesus himself: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Or they could re-tell the parable of conflict resolution, which Jesus ends this way: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me” (Luke 19:27).

The point is not whether that is your view of proper Christianity. The point is that that view was dominant among Christians then, just as its analog is currently widespread among followers of politicized Islam.

As with Islamists, Christians were taught faith and obedience. They were taught to seek their identity in something larger than themselves. They were taught to minimize Earthly concerns and to focus on an afterlife and to honor the martyrs. They were taught that dissenters and unbelievers were threats to the fabric of everything holy. So they became active participants in a dysfunctional culture of threat, persecute, and kill and be killed.

Yes, that is a simplification, for Christianity was divided into many fanatical and more moderate sects. There were also Jewish and Muslim minorities in the mix. And the religious rivalries and hatreds worked alongside ethnic and political rivalries and hatreds, as the English and the Spanish and the Dutch and the Italians and the Germans and the French loathed each other over grievances that stretched back for centuries.

But the West did achieve a culture of tolerance, and it did succeed in marginalizing its religious and ethnic haters. Now Christians of many sorts live and work alongside atheists and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists. And the English and the Spanish by and large get along, as do the Italians and the Dutch.

How did that happen? Because of philosophy—and a long period of cultural education and debate inspired by the humanism re-introduced into the West at the beginning of the Renaissance.

The humanists taught—often against vicious religious opposition—that life on Earth matters and that we should enjoy it. They taught that we should be rational, using our senses and our reason to understand the world and ourselves. They taught, increasingly as the Renaissance made headway, that each individual’s life matters and that we should judge people according to their individual characters and actions. They taught that each person is responsible for his (and even her) life.

A long line of thinkers from Montaigne in France to Galileo in Italy to Spinoza in Holland to Locke in England waged a multi-generational debate and succeeded in establishing them as foundational principles of modern Western civilization.

The West tamed its religious fanatics only because humanistic philosophy prevailed. So the lesson for our time is that the way to tame religious terrorism is not by religious methods—we don’t need a “return to original Christianity” or to hope that Islam has a “Reformation.”

For the long term, the currently-Islamic world needs to learn and internalize humanistic principles—just as we needed to learn them—and just as we need to continue to uphold them vigorously in our own culture.

Of course that is a huge task. Cultural education is a constant and ongoing project that each generation must accomplish. For our generation, being tested as we are by a resurgence of religiously-motivated brutality, we face a two-front challenge.

One challenge is internal. We must ourselves remain committed to humanistic principles of naturalism, reason, individual freedom, and self-responsibility. We must understand them, believe them, and act upon them consistently as matters of principle.

That is why what is going on in our schools and universities today is so disturbing, as so many of our intellectuals and professors are infected with jaded postmodern, anti-civilized ideology. That philosophy of irrationalism, collectivized race/ethnic/sex identity, and group conflict has done much to undermine a generation of young people’s ability to think rationally, debate constructively, and defend forthrightly the values of self-responsibility, freedom, and tolerance.

If we cannot defend those values, then we are defenseless against a committed Islamism.

The other challenge is external. Despite globalization, much of the Islamic world is still “Other” and is partially or totally closed off to our efforts to influence cultural developments within it. And that means that we must find ways to support its liberal, humanistic thinkers and activists. They are few and they are brave, and they are currently in the position that centuries ago the minority of Western humanistic thinkers were in—arguing and persuading for cultural change within a broader culture that is still often intellectually primitive, superstitious, fanatical, and savage.

They deserve our support, as the survival and progress of both of our cultures depends upon it.

[This article was originally published in English at and in Portuguese at]

[Related: The full archive of my articles in The Good Life series.]

2 thoughts on “How to Tame Religious Terrorists [Good Life series]

  • March 8, 2017 at 11:33 am

    Your post misses what seems to me one obvious way of taming religious terrorists–stop giving them reasonable pretexts for attacking us. One obvious and long-standing pretext is the Israeli occupation of Palestine, now in its fifth decade. You can’t occupy, expropriate, and disenfranchise people for fifty years and expect magnanimity from them. Military occupations beget resistance–violent resistance. If you want less violent resistance, it helps to stop giving people something to resist.

    We teach American children to valorize the “Sons of Liberty.” But the Sons of Liberty were terrorists who started a war over a British occupation that was much shorter in duration and much weaker in severity than the Israeli one. The called themselves the “Sons of Liberty,” but despite that name, they had no problem with slavery, xenophobia, the disenfranchisement of women, or the mass killing or expropriation of Native Americans. And yet we valorize them still, and induce children to do so. It’s amazing to me that people capable of valorizing the Sons of Liberty could find themselves scratching their heads at the ideology and behavior of Hamas, but apparently they do. The truth is, whatever its flaws, Hamas is more enlightened than the Sons of Liberty. Either both should be valorized or neither should be. But it is hypocrisy to valorize the one and demonize the other. We might consider the possibility that the terrorism that needs taming is not just theirs, but our own.

    One essential part of putting oneself in the head of a terrorist (or would-be terrorist, or terrorist-sympathizer) is to recognize that some of them have legitimate grievances, and that one’s own country is the source of those grievances. There is no justifiable way to write about the subject by abstracting from these grievances and focusing on abstract principles that bracket them as non-existent or unimportant. Nor is it enough to say that fights are triggered by local or short-term conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict is now at least a century in the making, as are almost all post-colonial conflicts involving Islam, which date back to the dissolution of the British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To describe our conflict with political Islam by abstracting from the details of this history is to place the conflict in an abstract ghost world rather than in the real world we actually inhabit.

    I spend my summers in the West Bank teaching Palestinian students political philosophy under Israeli occupation–including, no doubt, students who sympathize with Hamas. Much of what they say about their political situation is nonsense, but some of it is more cogent than anything one hears about the Arab-Israeli conflict here in the United States (and certainly more cogent than anything one hears from Objectivists). One can’t dismiss their claims a priori by abstracting away from claims about merely “local” conflicts. Here as elsewhere, the disagreements about principle are shaped by the local conflicts that give rise to those disagreements. There is no such thing as a purely abstract political disagreement, any more than there is such a thing as a political principle untethered to real-world history and experience.

    No Western thinker will make headway in the Arab Near East by “supporting” Arab liberals while abstracting from the justifiability of the Israeli occupation. The hypocrisy of that gesture is too obvious, and too opportunistic, to command anyone’s respect: it says, in effect, “We demand that you support liberalism while we support illiberalism; we demand that you take a stand while we ourselves remain neutral about whether our support for your dispossession is right or wrong.” Who could take such a posture seriously?

    Whatever American liberals may think or tell themselves, the truth is that they are not respected in the Arab or Muslim Near East, chiefly because they’ve done little or nothing to deserve respect. And a large part of the problem is that they are as eager to attack political Islam as they are eager to support political Judaism. Why any self-respecting Arab or nominal/secular Muslim would want to make common cause with such transparently unprincipled people is a mystery. But until such attitudes change in the direction of consistency and integrity, all bets are off. Sadly, there are no visible prospects for positive change on the horizon.

  • March 12, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    So what would be helpful, Irfan, is good data about how many terrorists become terrorists over the Arab-Israel issues and how many over various other regional disputes.

    This Global Terrorism Index (, for example, tracks 163 countries. According to it, Israel is ranked 33rd. That’s not to trivialize the problems there, but it does make me wonder about the emphasis you give to that particular place.

    Your comment’s first sentence says “Your post misses what seems to me one obvious way of taming religious terrorists …”. Please note that my article above begins by including the obvious way:

    “Defeating an enemy such as politicized Islam is a multi-front battle—police, military, diplomatic, cultural, and philosophical. Any fight is triggered by short-term, local disagreements. But long-term, generalized conflicts are always about abstract principles in collision.”

    Then I go on to discuss one of those causes in greater detail — the one that I think explains why a local conflict apparently can’t be resolved quickly.

    People who share a broader framework can resolve their smaller differences; but the more their broader frameworks differ, the more difficult it is for them to resolve even minor issues, and those relatively small problems are allowed or encouraged to fester and become big and intractable.

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