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An alarming rash of terrorist at-tacks—in Paris, San Bernardino, Jakarta, Afghanistan, Istanbul, and dozens more places—has the civilized world searching for answers. How can people commit such horrific atrocities? How is it possible to be that morally deranged? The answer, in a word, is ideology: once again, a toxic cocktail of ideas has scrambled a group’s moral sensibilities, inspiring otherwise unthinkable carnage.
The ideology behind many of these attacks was partially clarified when the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. Its statement cited Parisian culture’s offensive mix of “prostitution and obscenity.” Later, witnesses described how the attackers punctuated their pitiless execution of innocents with exultant cries of “God is great!” Clearly, neither Parisian nor secular culture has a corner on the obscenity market.
Within hours, the political obstacles to a candid discussion of the problem were on full display. At an American presidential debate, three Democratic hopefuls all rejected the phrases “radical Islam” and “Islamic extremist.” Both concepts, asserted Hillary Clinton, are “unhelpful” and likely to alienate American Muslims. The candidates agreed that such language should be off-limits.
The language we use here matters. Yes, it can alienate, prejudice, and even trigger xenophobic reprisals. But it can also impact our capacity to understand—and ultimately resolve—the problem. And the alternatives to phrases such as “radical Islam” and “Islamic extremist” have issues of their own. Suppose we purge these phrases of references to Islam and speak only of “radicals,” “extremists,” and “terrorists.” Would this be a step in the right direction?
Such scrupulously inoffensive language has a price. For starters, it trains our attention on symptoms rather than on underlying causes. By the time an ideology has turned someone into a terrorist, it has already erupted into violence; by the time someone has become radicalized, he or she is beyond the reach of reason. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked the key question: “How do you combat an ideology? How do you defeat an idea?”
The answer is to nip it in the bud: to defeat the idea before it becomes ideological. Importantly, philosophers have invested 2,500 years of R&D into a solution to this problem (Marco Rubio’s ignorant dismissals of philosophy notwithstanding). I call it “the accountable talk solution.”
It works like this: first, we hammer out sensible norms of accountable talk—a shared “ethics” of belief. We then enforce that ethic in spirited but friendly conversation, creating a culture that dissolves bad ideas before they harden into ideologies.
This may sound impractical, but it actually works. It’s been tested in the field, and the subcultures that institute it become highly resistant to ideological derangement. When is the last time a group of scientists, doctors, or engineers went on an ideologically fueled rampage? Has a group of Unitarians ever become so deranged? The fact is, we know how to inoculate people against ideological infection. The problem is that we haven’t developed large-scale immunization programs.
This solution depends, though, on our willingness to examine closely held beliefs and give up the convictions that don’t withstand scrutiny. Yielding cherished beliefs can be hard, but a little practice goes a surprisingly long way. The more immediate problem is that people take offense at the mere suggestion that a religion might play a role in fomenting bloodshed. Some even deride critics as intolerant for wanting to examine the hypothesis. In this way, the anxious concern to avoid conversational discomfort prevents an honest assessment of proto-ideological beliefs.
Let’s be candid: proto-ideologies are often religious. The Qur’an and hadiths contain many passages that exhort Muslims to kill, and countless jihadis testify that canonical passages actually inspire them to commit violence. Evidence of a causal linkage doesn’t get much clearer than that. We can’t dodge the argument by complaining that other religions have their own holy warriors or that secular and imperialist ideologies create their own kinds of destruction. Neither fact should exempt Islam from scrutiny.
To insist that a large majority of Muslims are peaceable, while true, is also to miss the point. If an improperly built road wrecks 1 percent of the cars that travel on it, it is a defective road. Similarly, a religion that spurs 1 percent of its followers to violence is a defective religion. If Islamic teachings induce 1 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims to wage holy war, that’s a huge problem for humanity. (The actual percentage that becomes radicalized is hard to estimate, but it is vastly higher than the percentage of, say, Quakers who do.) Yes, most Muslims are morally decent human beings, but still they bear some responsibility for spreading ideas that morally disorient others.
We liberals also bear responsibility. We tell ourselves that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and take a laissez-faire attitude toward the contents of other people’s minds. This is a cop-out, a way to evade the hard but necessary work of holding one another accountable. Our “free-market intellectualism”—analogous in many ways to free-market fundamentalism—allows irresponsible beliefs to flourish unchecked and metastasize into destructive ideologies. We expect rational accountability in the realm of action. Why not expect it also in the realm of belief?
The religious among us must also atone. For when we treat articles of faith as exempt from basic evidentiary standards, it undermines efforts to institute a sane ethics of belief. It creates a loophole that allows destructive ideologies to run rampant. Why should extremists observe accountability standards that moderates are unwilling to observe? Why should Muslims part with their cherished convictions if Christians won’t part with theirs?
Truly moral believing doesn’t flaunt the golden rule: it submits to the same evidentiary norms that we would have others observe. Think this through and you’ll see that all religious faith, and much ideology, is built on a kind of moral exceptionalism—a hypocritical conceit that says: “The rules of accountable believing don’t apply to me.” This, I submit, is the real root of the problem.
Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. He is working on a book about faith, ideology, and the ethics of belief. This essay was adapted from an op-ed that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.