Take a look at this crackerjack bit of reporting on the Islamic State. (Ignore the requisite use of “medieval” – I think he merely means the time of Islam’s founding, though I wonder if Islamic historians use the same terminology).
The article’s virtue is that it takes seriously the question of whether Islam the cause of the Islamic State. More generally, we can (and should) as whether self-described Islamic terrorists, such as those who attacked the Charlie Hebdo paper offices or perpetrated the 9/11 attacks? (Note: the “self-described” here relates to the “Islamic,” not the “terrorist” label). As stated, it’s almost certainly true and also almost certainly false. It’s almost certainly true in that, as a description of the terrorists’ subjective self-understanding, Islam is understood as motivating their actions. They say they are acting out of a particular understanding of the demands of Islam and so in that sense, yes, Islam causes Islamic terrorism. But it’s also almost certainly not true as well in that Islam is not the cause of Islamic terrorism in that there are plenty of social, economic, political and other factors that impinge on an individual’s actions. And herein lies the trouble in figuring out the degree to which “Islam” causes people to commit these horrific acts of violence.
You’d think that social science—which is all about trying to figure out what causes various social and political phenomena—would pretty good at helping us figure this out. And scholars have done lots of research trying to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and, implicitly, why others don’t). The trouble is that our social sciences have a hard time thinking about ideas as having causal power and so they tend to discount ideas as significant. Here’s why.
First, ideas themselves are just that—concepts, arguments, etc. floating about in speech—until they attach to particular persons or institutions that can put them into play and thereby make things happen. But just as soon as they get attached in that way, teasing out their causal effects gets confounded by the fact that the actor—whether individual or institutional—has a history, a class location, a sex, a race, etc. That is, the actor is a material creature with material interests, demographic factors, and a history that can also do work to explain all of our actions. Consider Samuel Huntington’s Third Wave that explains the great wave of democratization in the latter third of the 20th century in part through reference to the Catholic Church’s change of heart with respect to liberal democratic rights at Vatican II. Anthony Gill in turn suggests that the Church did that because it was in their interests (at least in certain parts of South America). These two explanations are not, strictly speaking, mutually exclusive but it’s a pretty vexed question how one might tease them apart (and decide which is more basic).
Second, ideas are never just “ideas” or a single cohesive idea that gets put into play across a variety of contexts or situations. We usually see instead that the “idea” is in fact a family of ideas, different conceptions that have a reasonably close resemblance but that certainly aren’t always the same thing, or at least the same thing in all the relevant respects. So when we ask whether “Islam” caused a certain sort of action, it’s a pretty simple thing to point to places where people hold to that idea and don’t commit the action—and give an all too easy negative answer. But that might be, of course, because what one person takes “Islam” (or any other set of ideas) to be is different than what another person takes that idea to be.
The temptation, then, for the social scientist is to favor material explanations over the ideational. Some do it for philosophical reasons (e.g. material causes just are more basic) and others for professional/methodological ones (e.g. you can count and measure material factors while ideational ones are frustratingly fuzzy). But in either case it seems to me a mistake, since it suggests that we are merely material creatures, subject solely to material causes and in practice indifferent to moral (or immoral, as the case may be) suasion.
So does Islam cause terrorism? Well, sure, in the sense that we have any number of people who have committed terrorist acts motivated (they say) by what they take to be Islamic beliefs (however incoherent or poorly structured they may be). But, no, in the sense that this is not the only thing going on—it’s probably not even the only ideational thing going on. But it is striking that over thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks we’re still having these kinds of debates. I wonder what that says about us?