Archive for April, 2013

Due Process and Indefinite Skepticism

April 25, 2013 Leave a comment


As more evidence mounts it has become increasing clear that the Boston Marathon bombers were influenced by their radical Islamic faith. Yet, some writers have acted as if noticing that is unjustified Islamophobia.

Glenn Greenwald:

But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tuscon and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism).

Others like Kevin Drum and Conor Friedersdorf, agree, and take the position that we should just remain agnostics on whether the suspects’ interpretation of Islam played a role in their actions until more evidence proves it.

So I am grateful for reminders from cooler heads about how frequently what everyone “knows” to be true turns out to be false. At worst, those warnings delay the moment when an inevitable conclusion is reached, as I suspect will be true in this case. That delay is the worst thing that could happen. Is that so bad?

There should be no objection to waiting for evidence and displaying skepticism toward knee-jerk assumptions. Everyone is and ought to be legally entitled to due-process to prove any guilt. But the problem with writers such as Greenwald and others that are quick to label opponents as Islamophobes is that their skepticism never ends – in practice they remain permanent agnostics that religion could really motivate terrorists or other enemies of civil society.  Scott Atran, for all his valuable insights, argues that “the greatest predictor from going from support [of the Jihad] to violence has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with whether you belong to a soccer club or not.” This type of statement is representative of those who divorce statistics from a coherent casual theory.

Everyone agrees that politics, social alienation, nationalism, and brain structure are reasonable factors in the casual chain, but for some religious apologists their Pyrrhonian skepticism only kicks in when you point out that some doctrines of Islam contribute to violent acts. Even Greenwald is happy to cite politics as the suspects’ motivation in another post despite chastising everyone else with a reminder that “media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial” when they mention religion.

Given what we know, we can provisionally consider the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists that are more than likely partially motivated by religious ideology. Obviously it’s not impossible that’s wrong (which is why we have due process), but it’d be a strange scenario indeed for something so important to their lives to NOT have influenced their actions.

Tamerlan was apparently kicked out of his mosque for being too extreme in his religion. A foreign government noticed and alerted the US that he was potentially a dangerous religious extremist before the bombings. They had an interest in Jihadist videos. Tamerlan traveled to areas that are “hotbeds” of political and religious extremism. The two brothers committed an act seemingly designed to purposefully create public terror and, as Dzhokhar says, “he and his brother had learned to make the pressure-cooker bombs that they used at the marathon from Inspire, the online Al Qaeda magazine.” Neither brother has a known history of diagnosed mental health problems. At a certain point when data begins to fit into a coherent theory it verges into reasonable inference. I’m more than happy to concede nothing is “proven,” but again, I refuse to not notice out loud what is obviously the most likely scenario – religious ideology inspired these two alleged terrorists.

If it’s true that some people unfairly and prejudiciously assume any suspected terrorist is an Islamic fanatic -and that unfortunately happens- a converse is also true; some people overcompensate and go to unreasonable lengths to deny what is most parsimonious: those seemingly radical Islamic bombers of innocent civilians at a highly public event were actually radical Islamic terrorists.

(photo: John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Categories: Religion
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