A Moderate Muslim Interviews a Suicide Bomber

This Pakistani television interview, with English subtitles, I think emphasizes the importance of Westerners not to make blanket and stereotyped observations about “what Muslims believe” as a group. As with the majority of Christians and Jews, the majority of Muslims are genuinely perplexed by the psychology of the fundamentalists within their ranks, and try to understand what is motivating them:

From this interview, isn’t it obvious that the problem of religious violence and fundamentalism within Islam is not something pathological about Islam itself, but something pathological about the fundamentalist psyche? Ideologies, religious and secular, breed fanatics in times of accelerated cultural change and economic upheaval. What culture Dostoevskian “underground men” happen to spring from has to do with where the stress lies.

In light of this, does it really make sense, as New Atheist Jerry Coyne recently did at his blog site, to speak this way about Islam?:

Well, I’m not in favor of stereotyping individual Muslims, but as for Islam, well, it does seem to be an intrinsically belligerent religion. Read the Qur’an — you’ll find plenty of belligerence there. And if you object that the Old Testament is belligerent, too, look then all the imams calling for jihad. And how many Muslims stood up to protest the widespread jubilation in the Middle East that ensued after 9/11, or stood up to defend the right of Danish newspapers to publish cartoons mocking Mohamed?

This “New Atheist-neoconservative-Sam Harris” way of talking about Islam, as Robert Wright has recently observed, distorts the situation on the ground. One man in the video is an enemy of the West, and of democratic and liberal civilization, and the other, obviously, is not. Both men call themselves Muslims. As among Christians, Jews, and atheists, there are people you can talk to and people you can’t.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to A Moderate Muslim Interviews a Suicide Bomber

  1. jonolan says:

    So it’s not Islam?

    How many Christian, Jewish, Pagan, or Buddhist suicide bombers have you’ve heard of? How many actual – as in they actually attacked – terrorists crying out religious slogans that weren’t Muslim have you heard of in the last century?

    While you are absolutely correct that there are fanatic and extremists in every faith, it seems that only Islamic ones are truly prone to extreme violence.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Jonolan, you’re mistaken. Suicide bombing originated, as an idea, among Western secular anarchists and was picked up by the Tamil Tigers (before any Muslim started doing it). As for Buddhist suicide bombers, what do you think the Japanese were doing to US ships in the Pacific during WWII? Their pilots were engaged in suicide bombing them.


  3. santitafarella says:

    Here’s the Wikipedia link on suicide bombing, including its history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_bomber

  4. jonolan says:

    I never said that the Muslims invented it. I just said that they’re the ones still doing it and the ones doing it to further terrorism.

    Face it, you had to go fairly far back into history to come up with non-Muslim examples.

    Also, seen any violent riots or concerted murder attempts against cartoonists insulting or lampooning anyone but Muhammad?

    Islam doesn’t breed a different violence from other things; it just seems to breed that violence more often.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Again, Jonolan, I think you’re sounding deliberately provacative, not thoughtful. Islam is no more prone to violence than any other of the major religions or historical ideologies. I’d suggest you step away from essentialism in your analysis, and give at least equal weight to context (historical, economic, cultural).


  6. jonolan says:

    I disagree with you, Santi. Islam breeds violence.

    I’ve thought about this for a while actually. The violence, which in modern times is greater by far than that based upon or justified by any other ideology, has only Islam in common.

    It’s not being Arab (My first thought), it’s not being in the middle-east (My second thought), and it’s not based upon economics as far as I can see.

    The only thing in common was Islam.

  7. santitafarella says:


    No, no, no. Islam (you are right) CAN breed violence. But so can Darwinism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and environmentalism (if interpreted in certain ways). You’re conflating a peculiar moment in the history of Islam (the rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979) with its essence. But things don’t have to be the way that you’re saying. Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus can share the world peacefully.

    I suspect we won’t agree, but that’s my take. Now take the hand of the person next to you and sing “Kum-by-ya”! (And no, I’m not joking.)

    Okay. Maybe I’m joking a little bit.


  8. hamarapakistan1947 says:


    Is the violence because of Islam or because of Politics and Economics (which you can’t see).

    Most of it is Media hype in the Western world. Few months back major conflict happened in Sri Lankan armed forces and Tamil Tigers, very little media attention i found in the Western media.

    Terrorism is perspective too. Israel can starve people to eating grass (Arab American News) and block water to Palestinians (Human Rights Watch) and no problem in that but when Hamas does something then it is because of Islam.

    Religions are peaceful its the political environment which makes people take certain action. Whether it be Christians blowing up Christians (Irish Liberation Army) or Muslims blowing up Muslims (Al Qaida bombing Mulim cities).

    If it was Islam that was the problem, there at least 2 Billion Muslims in this world, this world should have been a mess already since Islam has existed for 1400 yrs and been in power most of the time duration!

  9. jonolan says:

    You assume I’m saying that every Muslim is violent; that’s a tired strawman, hamarapakistan1947. All I’m saying is that Islam, more than any other current ideology, breeds violence in its followers.

    It can’t be Politics and Economics. The demographics of the violent behavior span Muslims in at least four continents and from all economic levels.

    Sorry,you can’t honestly tell me that middle-class Indonesians, Afghans, Pakistanis (pick any two tribes/ethnicities), sub-Saharan Africans, Iraqis, Iranians, and Black Muslims from America have anything significant in common other than Islam.

  10. santitafarella says:


    Islam is too broad a term. It’s fundamentalist ideology that breeds fanatics. The vast majority of the people who live in the cultures that you mention do not practice their Islam in a fundamentalist fashion. Most of them are just people like you and me, trying to raise kids and live their lives. The demonizing is obnoxious. We’re all human beings. The blame game is not productive. The enemy is the failure of love, imagination, and empathy, not Islam.


    • jonolan says:

      What is your explanation then for the disparate levels of violence (and other bad behaviors) between Muslim fundamentalists and fundamentalists of other religions, Santi?

      Also, you like hamarapakistan1947, are trying the tired strawman argument of claiming that I’m saying all Muslims are violent. I’m not,nor am I “demonizing” anyone.

      I am, however, patiently pointing out the fact that the evidence supports the theory that Islam breeds violence among its followers far more than other faiths.

  11. santitafarella says:


    You ask a good question. I think that if you put Christian and Jewish fundamentalists in the same situation as the developing Islamic world, you would have the same levels of violence coming from that segment of the world’s population. Not more. Not less. When people have money, food, rights, and dignity, and don’t feel culturally assaulted, they become emotionally expansive toward others. When you place them under stress, they become increasingly violent and receptive to icky ideologies—secular and religious. Islamic fundamentalism is a weird blend, I would add, of Western secular technology and anarchist tactics with fundamentalist religion.

    A second very large historical factor at work here is that the West experienced a period in which religion lost its grip on the collective mind: the 18th century Enlightenment. After the wars of religion throughout the Protestant Reformation and beyond, intellectuals managed to draw the direction of Western culture towards secularism.

    You, Jonolan, would no more have wanted to live in, say, John Calvin’s Geneva prior to the Enlightenment than in Iran today.

    I’d add that it was Islam, not Christianity, that preserved the Greek texts of Aristotle etc. that helped fuel Aquinas’s mind, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment’s interest in Greek authors. It was the revival of these Greek authors—their reintroduction to the Western consciousness—that helped shift the West into secularism. For historical contingent reasons, Islam, to date, never went through an equivelent (Enlightenment-like) historical period. They are experiencing it now, imposed from the global culture from the outside, and the adjustment is provoking nostalgia for pre-secular cultural forms and fundamentalism.

    Fundamentalism is a reaction to secularism. It is a symptom of Islam’s generally secular transformation, not of its regression. When the Taliban blows up a truck bomb in Pakistan or Afghanistan, they’re outraged at complicitious Muslims “infected” with secular culture, not just trying to blow up foreigners. Look at the kids in Iran this past year. They look like college students in the West. They dress like them. They think like them. They’re the future. Fundamentalism is a reaction to that future. The West is foolish to lump all Muslims together and fuel the resentment of moderate Muslims. Obama has this right (in his Cairo speech).


    • I think I agreed with Santi here, with some few comments.
      The end of 1970’s yes saw a rise of fundamentalism, but not only in Islam. In 1978, then 79 and 1980 we saw the coming of the Saint Trinity: John Paul II, Meggy Tatcher, and the one Ronnie Reagan. NO I’m not saying all this was a huge conspiracy. The “conspiracy” begin then. The election of those 3 mark the beggining of a propmiscuous alliance between the political right and the religious right, to fight THE Big Evil of the time: comunism, and anything that even slightly smells like it.
      In Afganistan the U.S. and the saudis feed the religious guerrilla against the soviets. The soviets eventually quit but the religious stay with saudi financed madrassas. From these came the Taliban, from the Afgan x Soviet war came Osama Bin Laden et al. In Palestine Israel follow the same strategy, financing the fundamentalist sunni Hammas against the secular leftist PLO.
      I’ve heard somewhere that people chose their enemies…
      I don’t think people are wrong in criticize religion in general and islam in special, the problem is that you lose the big picture if you disregard historycal, economical, and political issues. If you took only Isam as the main cause, it remains unexplainable why we didn’t have islamic suicide bombers earlier, and why it seems to have so few of them.
      In human history only very recently Religion, Economy, Politics, etc, are seen as separated entities. Most of the time they weren’t. That’s what we call secularism. It’s only due to this separation, the secularism we have in western cultures, that it’s possible or conceivable even to talk about “religious moderation”, “religious tolerance”, etc. These concepts didn’t exist before secularism, and such pratices had no place before either.
      A side note about Iran the cause of this huge histeria between the americans of the U.S. et al. With a slight different path Iran also fits the picture I give above. In 1953 U.S’s and U.K’s “intelligence” conspire to successfuly overthrow the secular (and nationalist) prime minister of Iran, Mossadeg, giving the power to the Sha, who ran on from that a dictatorship. He did a great job eliminating the left wing groups, and in associate by example all evil to western cultures. What was left as the only possible space for resistance were the Mosques and the clergy, who eventually took power in 1979, been absolutely hostile to the West. However all that hostility never translated to any mesure or agression against anybody beyond iranian borders, with the single exception of the death threat against Salman Rushdie.
      Otherwise all 19 hijackers of 9/11 were sunni, as O Bin Laden, 15 were saudi, as O Bin Laden, but i’ve seen nobody calling the sunni saudis accountable. People keep talking about the Iranian Threat. WTF?

    • jonolan says:


      Some of your points makes sense in and of themselves. The economic one is flawed due to similar levels of violent behavior being performed by middle-class Muslims in more developed countries – Iran, Indonesia, and America as examples.

      On the other hand, your description of it as a reaction to secularism which was already dealt with by other faiths centuries ago rings true.

      I’m not sure it changes anything though. You’ve posited a rational explanation as to why Islam breeds violence as opposed to refuting that it does.

      • jonolan says:

        Not quite true; Iran’s Muslim revolution resulted in violence against Lebanon and Israel by Iranian irregular forces and proxies. It’s true though that they didn’t send uniformed troops anywhere.

        It also resulted in genocidal pogroms against the Bahā’ī and other non-Shiite groups within Iran.

      • Jonolan

        AFAIK Israel invaded Lebanon, where it already had its own proxies (the ones that make a pogrom against palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, under oversight and orders of Sharon) since ever. So what?

        It also resulted in genocidal pogroms against the Bahā’ī and other non-Shiite groups within Iran

        Fine, maybe we should make a list of countries that make pogroms against minorities, and put them in line for been bombing.
        Even though I have some reasonable doubts that Iran would be put among the first places.

        Look people, Iran may have a nasty regime, but this is something iranians should deal with by themselves, in their own terms. They, iranian people, already gave many signs that they may and can do it, once they’re left alone. And they haven’t been left alone un-threatened since 1979.
        Iran and its people are ancient, they have been here for a long time, and their liders reflect that also. They are not an irregular group of guerrilla hiding in caves, without any responsability than survive another day. They are not suicidal, and they have already showed that.

  12. santitafarella says:


    The current Iranian regime poses a definite threat to Israel because they are enriching uranium (not something the Saudis are doing). It’s going to be very difficult for Western people to keep their heads about them concerning Islam, and making distinctions, over the next year precisely because the Iranian nuclear issue is likely to come to a head. Israeli and US interests may be diverging somewhat here, and if the Israelis bomb Iranian plants over the next year, there could be a great deal of instability and heated rhetoric exchanged between the West and the Islamic world. I want people to not demonize one another, and be careful to not join the rhetorical pile-on. Good luck, I know. But somehow we will need to exercise intellectual and emotional discipline, so as not to feed impulses to escalation and extremism. I think we live in a dangerous time, and it requires reason, not emotional reaction and overgeneralizing when talking about Islam.


    • Israel already have nukes, and have A LOT of capacity to take care of itself as well. Pakistan too, what doesn’t botter anybody at the time. Irak on the borders of Iran, is now occupied by a country who also have nukes. Lots of them. This same country that have not much of a trouble shooting down an iranian civil jet plane killing 290 people, 11 years ago, also have many bases and ships all around Iran about minutes of flight in range.
      So given the track record, would not be a surprise if Iran were looking for means to defend itself. Who wouldn’t. If i was an iranian, I would be praying to Alah, as it’s clear by now that the U.S. never attack countries who have WMDs. It attacks the ones that haven’t.
      If there is something that poisons the relationship of the U.S. not only with Islam, but everybody else, is the kind of double standard its foreign policy apply. You americans of the U.S should think about it.

  13. Roger Salyer says:

    One fears Jonolan has too short a memory.

    Clearly, had the subject questions he discusses come up 150 years ago, the smart money would have been to generally characterise Mohammedans as died-in-the-wool decadent, and Western man incredibly rapacious. Oh, how times have changed.

    According to journalist/author Tim Pat Coogan, the Irish Republican Army was set to begin a (unwilling) suicide bombing campaign around 2000 until it thought better of it. What would this have said about the Irish? Or nationalists in general for that matter? Very little, one should think.

    On the other hand, attributing what one dislikes to misunderstanding, and the actual poverty of one’s opponents is an old canard, and it will not fly here with Islam.

    Forgive the name-calling, but there is a propensity amongst Liberals to assume that if one just has material comfort, that this necessarily satisfies; however, this is not really true, and they know it. Although many people do become lumps from material prosperity (the universal DRUG of the West), many of the most active revolutionary agents, including the violent ones, in any society often come from that society’s upper crust, not oppressed by anyone.

    What Liberals mean to say is that material prosperity SHOULD satisfy. Anyone who is not so satisfied is a damned sociopath. That is, such labellers consider their own satisfaction and self-satisfaction (with stuff, and holding hands) normative, and anyone else the newest form of “the Other.” Certainly, everyone, necessarily, feels a sense of normativeness in their own attitudes of satisfaction. Yet, only the labellers to which alluded, have a philosophical disposition to refuse to consider their normative vision as anything other than universal. Osama-bin-Laden, Torquemada, and John Calvin have nothing in closed-mindedness on Richard Rorty.

    Rather than assume that the Islamic world is essentially violent because of Islam, or violent because it is poor and bereft of the Western virtue—contemplation of self—why not listen to the Muslims who are angry? They are hardly silent. “Stop pushing your junk in our streets and neighbourhoods,” they say.

    In order to totally condemn the Islamic fundamentalist and call him a sociopath, one would have to consider what we have around us as good. Therefore one cannot totally condemn the Mohammedan and call him a sociopath.

    Contra Prof. Fukuyama, this (what we have around us) is not the end of history, God be praised. Humanism has had its time in the past 100 years. But its sun is waning.

  14. UmerSultan says:

    Very interesting debate going on here. As can be expected that some people here are blaming Islam for the Terrorism, as such ill informed they are.

    I would like to post the link of what I wrote regarding this video few days back!!!
    If those who are blaiming Islam, don’t understand what I am talking about in the article, then probably they need to go and study the history of Islam and the religion because they haven’t done so.

    Peace and those of you who are trying to explain these illinformed the reality of the world. I would like to say to you all THANK YOU.


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