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The Appeal of ISIS: Islamism, Trust, and Costly Signaling

As refugees flood to the West in unprecedented numbers, and in the wake of a series of terrorist acts directly linked to Islamism, the chorus asking Muslims to explicitly denounce the violence of Islamism is growing ever louder. Others decry this request as inappropriate, unnecessary, patronizing, or even racist (Muslims are not a race, but this goes under the banner of “Islamophobia”). Mainstream Muslims should denounce Islamism and violence, but not because of the reasons many take as obvious.

First, however, we must define Islamism as a fundamentalist and militant religious and political ideology that drives for global conquest of an extreme Islamic theocracy and the application of strict Sharia law under its dominion. That Islamism is inspired by Islam via certain literal readings of the Quran is unambiguous, yet it remains just one draconian and acutely regressive interpretation of the religion. Islamism is dangerous and often deadly, and its broad conflation with Islam—and thus association with all Muslims—is deeply unfair. The violence that is associated with Islamism, then, is best understood as Islamist terrorism, not Islamic terrorism. Islam may be adhered to by Muslims who embrace nonviolent secularism. Islamism does not.

The reason Muslims need to condemn Islamism and Islamist terrorism is due to what social scientists call costly signaling—the performance of a symbolic act to indicate to other members of a social group that one is playing for their team and doing so at a price. It evokes trust—an indispensable commodity currently in short supply. Costly signaling taps into fundamental aspects of human psychology. Many Westerners—those on both sides of the political spectrum, from liberals who accuse critics of Islamophobia to conservatives who lump all Muslims into one category—do not appear to distinguish between Muslims and Islamists. Yet this distinction is critical to Western acceptance of progressive Muslims—those who do not embrace the violence of Islamism. The condemnation of Islamism and Islamist terrorism is an important, if not crucial, costly signal by which progressive Muslims can demarcate Islamism from Islam and simultaneously generate trust.

Human beings are groupish animals. We organize ourselves into groups, teams, tribes, cultures, and, ultimately, societies. The factors that go into separating human groups are many, and one of those is moral. Specifically, human beings form groups of “moral communities” around particular moral codes. Once these communities are defined, there’s often a fierce adherence to the norms of the group.

This groupishness evokes a trait known as parochial altruism, which means in-group prosocial behaviors coupled with out-group distrust and even hostility—displays of which we have unfortunately had little shortage. In other words, we are nicer, kinder, more trusting, more welcoming, and more generous with people we perceive as being on our team and sharing our values than we are others we deem to be outsiders; and we find it all too easy to mistrust and be callous, mean, or even vicious to those outside of our group. (Think of the famous image of the Hungarian reporter who kicked Syrian refugees.) Groupish behavior of this sort is a fundamental facet of human social interaction, whether or not the team designations are arbitrary, unfair, or nonsensical.

Moral communities, be those groups of friends, political parties, religions, or any sense of shared cultural values, are a kind of team. Whatever in-group squabbling occurs, we are likely to unite against the perception of a common enemy (even though such things as “friends” and “enemies” tend to grossly oversimplify human interactions, both within and between groups). Religions, especially tightly knit ones such as Islam, are particularly adept at forming strong moral communities with high levels of internal cohesion. This cohesion is reinforced by a sense of shared beliefs, rituals, food preferences and restrictions, and visual markers like female garb and male beards. The visual markers in particular make group identification, and thus separation from other groups, easier. Unfortunately, this also raises the stakes on demonstrations of costly signaling to be accepted by some broader group whose trust they’d like to secure.

Progressive Muslims deserve that trust from Westerners, and they hopefully realize the value in securing it. Islamism, however, is fundamentally at odds with Western values such as those articulated by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Charles Montesquieu. Brushing in broad, yet meaningful strokes, this gives us two teams: Westerners on the one side and Islamists on the other, with the vast majority of Muslims caught in between.

Muslims who adhere or subscribe to a much less fanatical and much more pluralistic and liberal understanding of Islam than do Islamists face this implacable choice. On the one hand, they have to stand with Western—thus secular—values; on the other, they must retain sympathies with Islamists and perhaps even terrorists who discharge the uncompromising goals of Islamism. As the threat and intensity of Islamist militarism and terrorism increase, people are demanding to know where those Muslims in their communities—or seeking access to it—stand. Choosing to ally with Western values and denouncing Islamism and Islamist terrorism is a costly signal that tells people exactly that.

This is a Hobson’s choice for Muslims. Islamists despise the West, but they also reject Muslims who favor Western values like secularism and pluralism more than they hate the West. Islamists, like those in ISIS, also act upon that hate, branding Muslims with a different theological interpretation of Islam as enemies and thus targeting them for murder. (To wit, much of ISIS’s success and brutality lies in exploiting the Shia-Sunni rift.) Muslims who denounce Islamism take an enormous risk with their lives (witness, for example, the murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh). Indeed, conservative family and friends may harbor significant Islamist sympathies and, despite those relationships, represent a clear and present danger to progressive Muslims, who are understandably cowed into uncomfortable silence. That silence, however, is being met with increasing animosity as Islamist violence becomes harder to ignore and displaces ever more good, decent Muslims into Western communities.

We don’t need a discussion about how public repudiations of violence helps Muslims become more progressive. There’s no need for any decent human being to denounce mass murder and terrorism in order to make it clear that they don’t stand for such acts. At issue is how we form moral teams. Most Westerners, to accept that Muslims are genuinely committed to playing on the Western team, need to be convinced.

Far from being bigoted, as some on the left insist, inviting such denunciations is a request to the majority of Muslims to show us they’re progressive—to show us they’re secular enough to live in a secular society. Islamism arises directly from a literal, if fierce, reading of Islamic scripture, and so the blurry line between Islam and Islamism must be made clear. Making the costly signal of denouncing terrorism with connections to Islam (if only through the fanaticism of Islamism) covers some of that distance.

More importantly, contrary to many right-wing media and Republican Party narratives, this isn’t Muslims or Islam against the West; it’s Islamism against Western values and human rights. The more Muslims who help make that clear by making this costly signal, the more obvious that distinction will become, and every one, especially Muslims, will benefit by getting this right. END

About the Authors

Peter Boghossian is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. Connect with him @peterboghossian.

James A. Lindsay has a Ph.D. in mathematics and is the author of God Doesn’t; We Do, Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly, and Everybody is Wrong About God. Connect with him at @GodDoesnt.

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