On ‘Radical Islam’ As A Root Cause

This recent New York Times story on attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad’s path to violence doesn’t provide any kind of grand unified theory of radicalization, but it does present a familiar story of displacement and alienation that we’ve seen in the stories of many other terrorists, Muslim and otherwise.

Recognizing that the idea — on display today, as always, at National Review — that there’s something intrinsic to the Islamic faith that makes its adherents more violence-prone than others is both offensive, ignorant, and deeply stupid, I don’t think there’s any denying that Attorney General Eric Holder dealt very clumsily with Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) badgering last week at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee over whether “radical Islam” played a part in Faisal Shahzad’s decision to attempt mass murder. Sure, Rep. Smith was playing to his conservative base by indulging in a bit of juvenile Muslim baiting, but I’m not sure why it was so hard for Attorney General Holder to simply acknowledge that an extremist variant of Islam was possibly among the factors behind the botched attack, as it clearly was.

On the other hand, I understand Holder’s reluctance to affirm these kind of talking points in favor of a more textured understanding of the contributing factors and conditions that create a terrorist. When it comes to crime and violence, conservatives have generally always been skeptical of talk of complex “root causes,” preferring instead explanations that aren’t too intellectually taxing. Probably one of the best and most humorous examples of this was former Senator Bob Dole’s declaration, upon accepting his party’s nomination as presidential candidate at the 1996 Republican National Convention, that “I mean to attack the root cause of crime — criminals, violent criminals.” Similarly, conservatives like Smith and others “mean to attack the root cause of radical Islamic terrorism — radical Islam.”

In the years since 9/11, especially relating to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, there’s been a pretty interesting debate going on in national security circles about violent radicalization, and the way that things like foreign occupation, humiliation, social alienation, and air strikes that kill civilians contribute to making individuals more receptive to extremist ideologies such as “radical Islam.” But judging from the way in which so many conservatives see “radical Islam” itself as a first cause, that debate unfortunately seems to have passed them by.